Coronavirus Outbreak: Despite personal loss, Assam hospital cleaner stays put in quarantine; doctors, nurses spend time reading, watching shows

Quarantine is definitely more screentime albeit on the consumers' end. Be it the mobile phone or the television, perhaps both are the best tools to be exploited to the core when in quarantine.

Simantik Dowerah May 04, 2020 11:12:28 IST
Coronavirus Outbreak: Despite personal loss, Assam hospital cleaner stays put in quarantine; doctors, nurses spend time reading, watching shows

Editor's note: This series will focus on the difficulties faced by the medical fraternity at COVID-19 hospitals, their duty hours, access to protective gear, facilities they get during quarantine, how are their families coping with this new reality across different states in the country. This is the first part of the series.

"I never realised that he was worried about me and even if he was he never expressed it to me. Probably he was quite tensed within. Maybe he got worried as I was not around and I was working in such dangerous circumstances. I would never know now if he was worried about me."

These are conflicting thoughts of a son who lost his father when he was not at home. It was sudden, unexpected and devastating for the son who is now serving a 14-day quarantine period. There are many people who are in quarantine at present due to the novel coronavirus but Mukesh Ingti is no ordinary individual. Ingti is a cleaner at the District Hospital Sonapur, a dedicated COVID-19 hospital in Assam's Kamrup Metro district.

Coronavirus Outbreak Despite personal loss Assam hospital cleaner stays put in quarantine doctors nurses spend time reading watching shows

District Hospital Sonapur. Image courtesy National Health Mission, Assam

A tale of grief

The first team of medical professionals from the District Hospital Sonapur, a medical facility located just 24 kilometres away from the Assam Secretariat in Guwahati, are now in mandatory quarantine period after a week of service at the hospital.

"I was on duty at the hospital from 1 to 7 April. Now I am in quarantine at a hotel in Guwahati. Suddenly on Tuesday (14 April) I got a call from home informing me of my father's demise very early in the morning at around 2.30 am. I was shocked. I have been talking to my parents, my wife and my 12-year-old boy every day," said Ingti, who is from Amguri village, which is seven kilometres away from Sonapur town.

"My father was suffering from high pressure for a few years now and was on medication for a while. I don't know what exactly happened. I also have another son who is just a month and a week old. They said everything was fine. I also never told them about things here lest they get worried," he said.

Ingti is in quarantine at Hotel Contour in Guwahati along with others from different government hospitals who like him were in active COVID-19 duty in their respective facilities.

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For Ingti, it is not an easy time. It is the hour when his family needs him the most but he sacrificed that for the greater good of the society, an invaluable lesson for those who violate the nationwide lockdown for no valid reason.

"When I informed our hospital superintendent, she told me that she could not allow me to go home without permission from the higher-ups in the department. Soon after a lady official from the health department called me and told me that they will send me home in this hour of personal grief. She explained the dos and don'ts to me and advised me not to stay there long, not to touch anyone including my father as I am in the middle of my quarantine period. She told me only to see my father's face and return to the hotel within a short time. I did the same because I know the risks involved as I was in contact with coronavirus patients for seven days. Before sending me home they took a swab from my nose and throat. I got the result today and it was negative," Ingti said on Wednesday.

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The government ensured that Ingti wore full protective gear when he went home in a government-arranged vehicle to pay the final respects to his father. He returned to his quarantine facility within an hour.

"When I reached home I learned that my father had sleepless nights for the past few days. Anyone will be little tensed in this kind of situation. We are three brothers and my elder and my younger brother don't stay with us as they work in different districts. So I looked after my family including my parents," he said.

'14 days in one room is not a joke'

Lodged at Taj Group's Vivanta Guwahati, the charm of a five-star hotel is a poor competitor to a 14-day confinement in a single room. Due to COVID-19, unique work schedules have come to take over the regular ones. Through thick of things for seven days at the District Hospital Sonapur at a stretch, staff nurse Queen Baishya is suddenly out of action. The reason being the protocol of seven days of duty followed by 14 days of quarantine after handling COVID-19 patients.

"I have been active on social media these days and watching a lot of television. My daily schedule changed during quarantine. It is almost 9 am when I get up. I even go to bed late at night these days," said Baishya.

Although the state government is trying hard to keep its healthcare professionals in quarantine as comfortably as possible, these individuals are also employing different ways to kill the boredom.

For her hands deft in administering intravenous drips and giving injections to patients, another staff nurse at the District Hospital Sonapur, Karabi Borgohain, held a pen and a pencil instead in search of creative ways to spend her time in quarantine.

"I did a few sketches and wrote a poem as well," Borgohain said.

Coronavirus Outbreak Despite personal loss Assam hospital cleaner stays put in quarantine doctors nurses spend time reading watching shows

A sketch during quarantine by Karabi Borgohain.

"I am reading Chandana Goswami's Patkair Ipare Mor Desh (My Country is on the Other Side of the Patkai)," she said.

Coronavirus Outbreak Despite personal loss Assam hospital cleaner stays put in quarantine doctors nurses spend time reading watching shows

(L) Karabi Borgohain's poem and (R) the book she is reading during the quarantine.

Reading during quarantine is something Borgohain hasn't chosen alone.

"They supply us with the Times of India and The Assam Tribune every morning and I go through them thoroughly. I also brought a few books with me. Right now I am reading India After Gandhi by Ram Chandra Guha. I finished reading two books by Mrinal Talukdar as well -- Post-Colonial Assam and 1962. Reading is my hobby. In fact, since childhood, we have a library at home. But due to my hectic schedule now, reading has gone down drastically. So I am making most of my time now in quarantine," said Dhiraj Kumar Pathak, one of the first three doctors who attended to COVID-19 patients at District Hospital Sonapur for seven days and is now in quarantine at Vivanta Guwahati.

Coronavirus Outbreak Despite personal loss Assam hospital cleaner stays put in quarantine doctors nurses spend time reading watching shows

Dhiraj Kumar Pathak has set a steep target for himself to finish reading as many books as possible during the 14-day quarantine period.

A trained pathologist, Gitanjanli Das, whose quarantine started from 15 April as she belongs to the second batch of doctors treating COVID-19 patients at District Hospital Sonapur, plans to relax and read.

"I brought a few books with me authored by Anuradha Sharma Pujari. I love her writing. But my primary goal is to rest," she said.

Also from the second team of doctors from the same facility, Utpal Patir has got rather serious books with him to read in quarantine.

"I am from Radiology and I have brought a few books with me on it. I would like to go through my textbooks with reference to the cases that I handle. Apart from that, newspapers will take a certain part of my time in the next 14 days of quarantine. I plan to continue with my morning exercise as well," said Patir. "I also subscribe to Amazon Prime. This is my broad plan and maybe I will add a few more things as the days go by."

Quarantine is definitely more screentime albeit on the consumers' end. Be it the mobile phone or the television, perhaps both are the best tools to be exploited to the core when in quarantine.

"I am using streaming services to keep myself occupied. I watched series like Panchayat on Amazon Prime and Special Ops on HotStar. In the past week, I watched the Ramayan religiously at 9 o'clock in the morning on Doordarshan. I missed the episode broadcasted at 9 pm a few times though," said Pathak.

Borgohain is trying to improve her culinary skills with some tips from cooking shows.

"I watch the news on TV so that I can keep myself updated on what's happening on the coronavirus front. I also love watching cooking channels," she said.

For pathologist Das, who hasn't introduced herself to the world of streaming services yet, it is a perfect time perhaps to debut.

"I have not subscribed to streaming services like Amazon or Netflix but maybe I will have to do soon," she said. Das worked at the Gauhati Medical College before and shifted to District Hospital Sonapur last November after getting a promotion.

Away from family

More than the feeling of being caged, the thought of being away from family is profound for all these medical staffs who are in quarantine.

"We could not go home during Bihu this time. It is my child's first Rongali Bihu. I really felt sad on the day of Bihu (14 April) because I had to stay away from home and I won't lie about it. I never said that to my folks back home because they will be sad," said Pathak.

Nothing can perhaps be more motivating than a video call home in these times.

"I make video calls to my home three or four times a day. I also do video calls with my friends. I am getting calls from my friends who are enlisted for COVID-19 duty and have not started yet. They have all completed their training and want to know about the practical experience from me. So I share my experience with them," he said.

The comfort of seeing each other via video calls in these trying times can be of great comfort to both these healthcare professionals and their families.

"I am from Sualkuchi and I have my parents, my brothers and my sister-in-law. I have worked for two years now at the District Hospital Sonapur. I was at the Rani Community Health Centre before. I stay in the quarter at the District Hospital Sonapur. I do video calls to my family at times. My parents were very worried when they enlisted me for COVID-19 duty. So when the patients were admitted to the facility they almost stopped eating. My father is always worried about me anyway. Now they are a bit better as I am not in the hospital and they can do video calls with me," said Baishya.

The longing for home was evident in her voice.

"We may get to go home provided we prove negative in the test they are going to do just before the quarantine ends. We are a group of 50 staff nurses at the District Hospital Sonapur and there will be some time before we join back again," she said.

Even Pathak can't wait to be home, to be with his eight-month-year old infant son.

"If everything remains fine it will end on Wednesday (22 April 2020). After that, we were told that we will be allowed to go home. It will also depend on what kind of routine they make and the number of patients admitted in the facility. In all likelihood, out of the three cases, two will be discharged later in the day. The third patient is over 60 years of age. His condition is not complicated but since he is above 60 years of age, that's why probably he is still testing positive. The other two patients are relatively younger to him," he said.

On the same day later, on Wednesday, two patients were released from District Hospital Sonapur becoming the first from the state to overcome COVID-19. "Before we came to the hotel, we gave the discharge slip for two patients out of three," said Patir. In the evening, the patients were released in the presence of Assam health minister Himanta Biswa Sarma.

However, as this story is being published the third patient has also been released from the hospital.

For Patir, the whole world has literally turned upside down for his family because of COVID-19.

"I am originally from Bilmukh village, Lakhimpur district and stay at Narengi in Guwahati. I have my wife and two children. Now my children at my brother-in-law's place in Lakhimpur. My wife is also a doctor and she is part of the COVID-19 response team. She works at the Ulubari Urban Health Centre which is under the Gauhati Medical College. She is working as a nodal officer of the COVID-19 response team. There is no one at home so we had to keep our children at our relative's place. The younger one is five-year-old and the older one is 10-year-old. So right now my wife is staying at a different place, I am at another and the children are in a different place. None of us could meet each other during Bihu. The only option left for us is a few video calls," he said.

A mother of twins, pathologist Das can only helplessly watch her husband and an aunt of hers taking care of her children while she is away in quarantine.

"I plan to watch TV and of course video calls to my family, my twins in particular. They are four-and-half-years-old. My husband is a Public Works Department engineer and is posted in Nagaon district. Now he is home and taking care of the children. It is getting quite tough for him because the maid has also cannot come as the society has prohibited the entry of outsiders because of coronavirus. I pleaded with an aunt of mine and she agreed to stay at my place in my absence. My husband and my aunt are managing somehow. I never stayed away from children so I am feeling really sad. Looking after is already a challenging job and now with the lockdown, they are literally locked up inside the flat. In fact, I was so busy working that I hardly knew when the Bihu passed," she said.

Staff nurse Borgohain is depressed that she cannot do video calls home.

"I am from Dhemaji and my husband is from Mangaldoi. I have a two-year-old daughter. I missed home during Bihu. I don't do video calls home because if she sees me she will start crying. Her name is Nistha. I will be really sad then. It will also become hard for her father to manage her. My husband is a manager with Surya Gold Cement. He is home because of the lockdown and looking after our daughter," she said.

Although the first team of healthcare professionals from District Hospital Sonapur spent the Rongali Bihu alone for the most part of the day, the health minister had a surprise stored for them.

"This time no laru, pitha (traditional Assamese delicacies) were made back home because I wasn't there. But to the surprise of most of us here, the health minister visited us on the day of Bihu and gave us packets of Assamese delicacies. He also gave Gamocha (traditional Assamese rectangular cloth given as a mark of respect also known as Bihuwan) to each one of us. On those packets, he wrote with his own handwriting wishing us Bihu. These small gestures actually motivate us and will also inspire the new batches of doctors who will join duty. I must also add many people wished us over the phone and messaged good wishes," said Pathak.

Baishya too shared similar emotions.

"I did feel bad staying alone during Bihu but Himanta Biswa Sarma gave us a pleasant surprise. I am yet to finish the packet of pitha. That he remembered us in spite of his busy schedule is an overwhelming feeling for us. In fact, we got pithas again with breakfast the next day. That way, we got pitha twice," she said.

The food protocol

For those staying at the Vivanta Guwahati, the food protocol has been different.

"I am staying here comfortably. They place our food outside the room. The hotel staff is also a bit paranoid since we handled positive cases," said Borgohain.

Pathak pointed out that it was necessary to not scare the hotel staff.

"There is a food tray outside the room. They keep the food there at regular intervals. Usually, the breakfast is given around 8.30 am, lunch around 1 pm and dinner around 7.30-8 pm. After the food is placed on the tray outside, they call us on the intercom to inform that the food has been placed. Apart from that, I make tea in the room itself in an electric kettle. The food is good. Only thing is I am missing the Assamese food. They are providing us with north Indian cuisine," he said.

The following of protocols have been so strict that these professionals have ingrained within themselves to follow them to the tee.

"Although I can go out of the room I prefer not doing so as there is a possibility of contamination. We have been following all the SOPs and it doesn't matter if we don't go out of the room for a few days. We will have to keep in mind that the Taj authorities actually called their staff from home despite the lockdown so that they can serve us. We should not make their work difficult and follow the rules," Pathak said.

However, staff nurse Borgohain takes a small walk for a very short time. "There is a corridor outside where I sometimes take a walk for a couple of minutes," she said.

Hotel Contour, where Ingti is quarantined, has a different set of rules.

"I am sharing the room with one of my colleagues and staying on the fourth floor of the hotel. We have to go to the first floor for food. There are people complaining about the food lacking in fish or chicken but I am happy with it," said Ingti.

"We are around 20-22 people in quarantine in the hotel from various hospitals and four of us are from the District Hospital Sonapur. There are some shortcomings but overall it's fine. We are not allowed to go outside the hotel. I watch TV sometimes or take a walk on the hotel premises. The health department is also keeping a strict tab on our health condition," he said.

Fighting against odds

Today is the 10th day in quarantine for the first team of healthcare professionals from District Hospital Sonapur. They are wholeheartedly acknowledging the effort of the government, the hotel staff where they are staying in quarantine and the public in general in taking care of them and for the appreciation shown towards their work.

"Whatever it is so far, it has been good and we have been taken good care by the government, the Taj authorities and the general public. We never expected this kind of recognition," said Pathak.

What the doctor from District Hospital Sonapur did not say was that others need to be responsible as well, follow the government guidelines strictly, not hide their travel history, not flout the lockdown for fun, support healthcare professionals through cooperation and not merely praise them on social media and phone calls.

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