A WhatsApp “forward” I received a few days ago was a video of a ward in Sion Hospital Mumbai showing Covid patients lying on beds, some with crying family members, some with a sheet covering them, some on beds in body bags. What was worse than the video was the reactions that came with it. From both doctors and non-doctors.
The first thing that came to my mind when I watched the video provided a dark glimpse into a past that suddenly seemed as recent as yesterday but was, in fact, 50 years ago. A time that I cannot forget. A time that shaped me to become a doctor and serve my community for 40+ years in Mumbai.
The year was 1967. I was in Class 7, freshly turned 13 years old. I fell sick with a sore throat and fever that lasted days. It was brushed off as seasonal changes by everyone including my doctor. It was my mother who insisted on further investigations because she said I wasn’t acting like myself. A throat swab revealed I was suffering from Diphtheria. In a matter of minutes, my life changed. This was not a common diagnosis for which you could be given medicines and sent home. Diphtheria is an extremely severe and contagious disease of the throat and nose, making breathing difficult and laborious. In the pre-vaccination era, this was a death sentence for children aptly nicknamed ‘The Strangling Angel’.
I wasn’t allowed to go back home or even say goodbye to my parents and siblings. I was immediately admitted to Kasturbha Hospital of Infectious Diseases, Mumbai. From there, a long and crucial ordeal began.
Because I was 13 as per my birth certificate, I was admitted to the adult ward and not the pediatric one as one would have imagined, the the youngest and most scared ‘adult’ in the room. The room was a dark dungeon of isolation with mesh windows and far-apart beds. Total isolation from family or friends. No one was allowed to meet me, not even my beloved mother who was pining to see if her son was alright.
We were given food through the windows with no one allowed within a few feet of us. I felt like a caged animal. None of the patients were guilty of self-pity. Everyone understood the gravity of a contagion. And all we wanted to do was to get better and go home.
I was in a medical coma for two days. When I recovered, I found the man on the bed next to mine had died a few hours ago. I felt a mix of emotions. I was upset for him, scared and frightened about the fact that it could have been me, thankful I was awake even if not yet completely healthy. I had no one to share my feelings with. So I turned around in my bed, faced the wall and cried myself to sleep. Nothing else could be done. The body of the man who had died was moved after three hours.
In that time, I noticed the process of how they moved the body, all the tests that needed to be done, the documents that needed to be prepared, the stretcher that had to be brought in along with a body bag, the clothes that had to be changed, the disinfection that had to be done. It is not an easy job. And these are necessary procedures, legalities and safety measures. You cannot dispose of a body as soon as you pronounce it dead. This is what people fail to understand. That was a man once, he is not a bag of flesh and bones.
As I started recovering, my curiosity and energy came rushing back. I got more and more interested in the goings-on of the hospital and well-being of the patients who were now my family. I became the ‘class monitor’ of my ward. I walked behind the doctors and nurses as they took their rounds, helped change the sheets and collect charts, helped give the patients food and medicines, did everything I could. The doctors and nurses were happy to have me around. Yes, the experience was scary, which is why I understand completely why people are petrified of isolation wards. But the fright lasted a few days, after which the positive attitudes and joyful nature of the medical staff put me to ease. Tough to have imagined it in the beginning, but I enjoyed my stay there.
I was finally pronounced recovered and was happy to go home to my mother. She made me my favourite dinner and fed me till I was full that night. I told her at that time that I wanted to be a doctor. The experience I took back home with me helped me approach every case as a human being first, not a patient or a puzzle that needs to be solved. It helped me work in government hospitals with a humane touch. It shaped me in a way I would never believe. I could have gone undiagnosed and been a victim in my house and infected my siblings as well if I had not been separated from my family. But I came out of there stronger, healthier and happier.
As a doctor, although I practice as a General Surgeon, I have always had a great interest in Epidemiology. I have worked through two epidemics – the Guinea worm epidemic in Uran, Maharashtra 1977 (the research led to the sanctioning of Ransai Dam which provided drinking water to Uran Taluka eradicating the epidemic) and the Malaria epidemic declared by our own rural medical centre in 1989 in Washi, Raigad, Maharashtra. I may be 65 today and although not able to proactively take the driver’s seat in this epidemic, I am currently working on the planning and execution of the Government Covid Control Program. I am doing my best in whatever way possible. And I assure you all doctors who are working on the front lines are doing their best as well. We want you to understand that.
Many people have passed away despite our best efforts, many doctors have passed away too while putting in their best efforts to save others. Many more people have recovered and surpassed the worst thing they may have to face in their life thanks to those doctors. So when you see videos going viral of isolation wards and hospitals looking like graveyards, please know that they are also sources of recovery and rebirth for many people. Please forward WhatsApp messages responsibly.
(Dr. Siddharth Ambaji Patil, is a General Surgeon and Endoscopist. He is Director of Mangala Nursing Home and Cancer Research Centre, Pen, Maharashtra.)
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