I have been a COVID doctor for the last few months. At least technically. My hospital and medical college was designated a COVID only center, several months ago. My specialization shelved for the pandemic. The response was not strictly our specialty domain. But all hands on the deck was the order and all hands it has been, since.
Due to the close association and observation of COVID patients I took more than normal interest in the evolution of the medical response to this disease across the world. The images that were beamed in from the world were quite alarming. It seemed that the whole world had become an intensive care unit and a significant part of the population would be wiped out. Each country developed a standalone response while secretly copying others.
We got our first patient many months back and despite years of medical training our morbid curiosity turned out to be unwarranted. The patient was a normal looking old man. Just like the rest of us. Only that test was somehow positive and he could infect others. He was quite amused by the activity around him. The thing that struck us most from those early encounters with these patients was their difficulty in coming to grips with the loneliness of isolation. The first few days in the hospital ward were the toughest for them. Away from family with a disease that was not fully understood amidst strangers and white clad unrecognizable figures doing their faceless rounds. The garbled voices from the masked figures making them feel more isolated than ever.
As time went by we realized that the disease would take time to be fully understood. The vaccine wars have not made it any easier, neither have the ever-increasing numbers. Humanity’s inability to develop a composite response under one flag has been one of the enduring legacies of this disaster. Under our PPEs we could not show compassion and could manage to see the patients barely, inadequately, imperfectly but they were nevertheless thankful. Imperceptibly, as healthcare workers, we realized that it was just a matter of time before we got the infection ourselves. And the likely source Would be the community and not our patients. The ward in some ways seemed safer than the outside world.
A week ago, I awoke in the middle of the night with the feeling as if a knife had been driven into the right side of my chest. I had experienced mild fever the night before. I couldn’t lie down. I knew that the expected visitor had arrived. With a weariness of routine hanging over me, I went through the motions of the COVID investigatory protocol. The result was a foregone conclusion. Pneumonia with a little water in the chest cavity. Stable parameters. Home isolation.
Now I have been in isolation for 8 days. For the first time in many years, time sits heavily on my hands. The clock is unwilling. I want to fast forward it but it seems to be frozen. The glass seems to have interminably entwined it. I look at the walls and notice subtle things that I haven’t seen in years of residence within these four walls. The grains of wood speaking about the age of the tree that bore them, the flowers in the wall paper frozen in bloom and the tracks in the flooring attesting to constant use. The room is beautiful but cold, bereft of human company. The phone rings and I talk. The worried acquaintance at the other end is akin to a worker in a PPE. The voice metallic, and far away. I write often. It is my weapon against the nibble of depression. But the mind refuses to focus and the fingers are unusually tired. I think of my ageing mother and my kids. I think the odds of surviving are quite high but it is the ominous small percentage that keeps cropping up. I am not especially enamoured with life but like any human being at my age I have some unfinished business. That is a pull and a big one at that.
The television sits silent. The news, unpalatable at best, is especially unappetizing. I look at the picture and want to climb in and sit on that rock beside the river rapids. I spend a lot of time answering messages from patients requesting treatment of their own afflictions and niggles pertaining to my specialty. It is strange to answer when you feel unwell. But I have desire to help that overcomes my tiredness. Some are unaware of my sickness, some know about it but don’t seem bothered by it, while as others forget about their own illness if I let on. Human nature is very varied. Within a couple of days, I sink into a routine. The days get easier. I read about patients in the past pandemics. Isolation is a recurring theme. It is important for the patients and even more important for the family.
Some of my acquaintances want to visit despite the risks. It is my duty to refuse and I do it as politely as I can. I can feel the compassion and thank my creator for having such people in my circle. My mother is quite worried about me. She prays and prays a lot at that. She has a rather unaffected prism that filters complicated issues for her. She does what her experience and faith tell her to do. It empowers her in many ways for such situations. I think that the adage I, Me, Myself has many shades which are especially prominent during this isolation. Does it even stand to reason?
The pandemic isolation also drives home the point that one usually does not notice so acutely amidst the grind of daily life. As a doctor I realize acutely that nature is a behemoth that needs to be respected. I feel humility before this force should be a second nature to us. We are still picking stone pebbles of knowledge on a vast beach. We, probably, will forever be picking pebbles.
On day 6 of my isolation I send my family for their mandatory COVID test. The reports return the next day. I thank God once again as all of them test negative. Later in the evening, I hear that my young son has thrown a tantrum. Unfortunately, as a COVID isolated parent, I cannot talk to him directly. So, I call him on phone. He seems quite grumpy. I know he is a listener. I ask him why he is so irritable. That is when he says something that hits me like a brick. Baba, he says, I wanted my test to be positive so that I could be with you.
This love borne out of childish innocence is surely enough to make my heart skip a beat. As expected, I am left speechless.