An Oral History of the COVID-19 Crisis: 'The first thing we witnessed in the isolation ward, was death'

This account is part of Firstpost’s Oral History Project of the COVID-19 Crisis in India. The Oral History Project aims to be an ongoing compendium of individual experiences of the pandemic, with a focus on one significant day in our respondents’ lives during this time.

Shilpa Raina January 18, 2021 11:07:50 IST
An Oral History of the COVID-19 Crisis: 'The first thing we witnessed in the isolation ward, was death'

Illustration © Adrija Ghosh for Firstpost

Shilpa Raina, 39, is a journalist from Noida, Uttar Pradesh.

It was an unanticipated moment for us. Until the afternoon of 5 December 2020, the closest my father and I had been to a COVID-19 fatality was through news reports. But then here it was, right in front of us: Wrapped up tightly in a white sheet, in the isolation ward of the Government Medical College, Jammu, the mortal remains of an individual who had succumbed to COVID.

Only a few minutes ago, I had wheeled my father on a stretcher into the most dreaded space of the year gone by. The first thing we witnessed was death. Caught off guard by the suddenness of this encounter, we looked at each other, trying to fathom what the other was thinking.

Read more from the Oral History Project here.

Almost 24 hours ago, my mother had called, informing me that my father was getting himself admitted to the hospital after his oxygen levels had plunged drastically. That he was all by himself had triggered a sense of unease in the family. Being a cancer survivor, my mother hadn’t stepped out of the house in the last nine months. Having her accompany my father to the hospital was unthinkable. My brother and I were in Delhi. Unlike at any other time, the expectation of support from friends and relatives during a medical emergency that even faintly looks like a suspected case of COVID-19 is almost non-existent. Somehow, my father managed and was taken in the emergency ward, as his RT-PCR test results were awaited. Meanwhile, I booked myself on an early morning flight to Jammu.

The news of my father testing positive for the pathogen didn’t come as a surprise. We all had mentally prepared ourselves since he exhibited prominent symptoms of COVID-19 : difficulty breathing, chest congestion and pain. I expected hospital staff to act swiftly and isolate him, as the emergency ward was brimming with people. However, hours passed before an attendant ushered us to the isolation ward.

Isn’t there anyone else with you?” the attendant asked. Irked by the hospital’s laidback approach and his unwelcome inquisitiveness, a curt “No” tumbled out of my mouth. Not sensing any traces of anger in my response, he asked, “How will you do it all alone?” I ignored his question for I thought he expected a male member to navigate hospital chaos and not me. Instead, I changed the topic and asked about the ward.

One person has to be with the patient,” he revealed.

“What!” I thought I had misheard him.

“Yes, someone has to be with him 24*7. Another person is also allowed. Usually, caregivers take turns here.”

I was gobsmacked, unable to process what I had just heard. Frustration, anger and helplessness — in no specific order — seized my senses: Frustrated by a crippled healthcare system in this newly-formed Union Territory; angry with my father for ignoring his initial symptoms, and helpless for not having any other option.

The workload of a caregiver was determined by the condition of the patient. In our case, apart from the significant drop in my father’s oxygen levels, he had started showing symptoms of bradycardia — a condition when the heartbeat is slower-than-expected. So all I had to do was closely monitor the numbers. Additionally, my cousin, who is a senior resident at AIIMS, had instructed me to make my father do a few breathing and leg exercises, besides including chest physiotherapy to alleviate respiratory discomfort for faster recovery. And initiating him into these was an arduous task.

There is a joke in our family that my father can’t sit still for long. That he ‘likes to keep [himself] occupied’ is how he has always defended his restive state of being. A trait inherited from his maternal side, he found escape from the slowness of life by actively engaging in chores but never with himself. Thus, I was struggling to convince him to perform these solitary rituals for his own good. His reluctance to rid himself of decades of conditioning often revealed itself in the form of excuses: ‘Subah se kar raha hun; raat ko karunga; abhi thak gaya...’ My 65-year-old father wasn’t ready to relent and cooperate.

But something changed on the fifth day.

I distinctly remember that morning. Nothing was unusual except that the patient opposite us was cycling his legs furiously while lying on the bed. The lanky man was always the first person to wake up in the ward. But we had never seen him exercise before. We thought it was a sign of recovery. Often, I used to steal a glance at his monitor to compare his parameters vis-à-vis my father’s. The old man was definitely faring way better.

However, when at around 8 am, he tried to get up from his bed to go to the washroom, his legs tottered, as he struggled to rest his feet on the floor. He couldn’t stand at all. Even when his attendant and other people supported him by wrapping his arms around their shoulders, the old man failed to balance on his feet. His listless legs wobbled, hanging in the air, touching the floor sporadically. Afterwards, he burst into tears; overnight, his legs had given up.

That was the first time I felt scared, as I realised the pathogen doesn’t follow a pattern, and the possibility of collateral damage in some cases couldn’t be ruled out. My father could be next! And as I turned around to look at him, he was quietly stretching his legs. Perhaps, assuring himself they are still moving. I may never know whether it was the fear of immobility or a sense of vulnerability at work, but he finally performed all holistic treatments with zealousness. This episode turned out to be the turning point in his recovery.

The incident also was a lesson in acknowledging the fragility of the mind that recedes to a darker space when caught in a state of uncertainty, especially when not surrounded by loved ones. Unpredictability triggers anxiety and anxiety paves the way for fear. I believe I saw traces of fear in my father’s eyes when old man collapsed.  Had I not been with him to talk, care, and support…would it have been a different story?

I do not want to know.

Write to us with your COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown experiences for inclusion in the Oral History Project at firstculturefeatures@gmail.com

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