Gulping down my too-sweet coffee, I feverishly scrolled through the myriad of tutorials on how to properly don and doff a set of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). I was due to start my first day at my first real job in just a couple of hours. The period following graduation had been a dismal cycle of study and exams that I was more than glad to be done with. But having been away from the hospital for eight months, I was more than a little apprehensive about being back on the pathogen-infested front lines.
Staying at home during the first wave meant that I had, like every other person on the planet, stockpiled sanitiser in all forms – liquid, spray and wipes. I had gotten used to the luxury of scrubbing every surface (and object) in sight with the above items and basking in my microbe-free bubble. While I could no longer afford to be so fastidious, I knew I had to somehow strike the right balance between vigilant and neurotic.
Pulling up at the hospital, I composed myself as I prepared to enter. The waiting area was frightfully crowded with wailing children and vexed parents – the hallmark of any paediatric hospital. I took one look at them and made a beeline for the PPE. Might as well dive right into it.
With the stifling costume came a wonderful sense of security, but only for a minute. Then predictably, my mind wandered to all the possible holes in my defense and how I would doff without self-contaminating. I shook my head. One step at a time.
Feeling prepared, I stepped into the lift to head to the Covid ward. The face-shield was a constricting band around my head. I peered at my reflection through the blasted thing. Head-to-toe in blue I looked like a Smurf, I thought to myself sourly.
The ward sister looked harried and sweaty in her PPE. “The files are on the table, doctor,” she said, throwing some used syringes and cotton into the biomedical waste bin. She then proceeded to remove her ill-fitting N95 mask and wipe her face with her gloved hand. I could only watch in mute horror.
As I made my rounds, I was grudgingly grateful for the stupid face-shield as patient after patient sprayed virus-containing droplets into the air. I noticed that some patient files were missing. Oh, they’re downstairs in the office. Insurance paperwork, you know, I was told. Didn’t that defeat the purpose of an isolation ward, though? I received only blank looks in response. Walking out, I comforted myself with the knowledge that Covid transmission through fomites is rare. But it can’t be completely ruled out, my mind offered helpfully.
The receptionist interrupted my depressing thought spiral to tell me that I had a new patient to see. COVID-19, of course. “All these patients!” she complained. “It’s impossible to tell who has COVID-19 and who doesn’t. I’m telling you, doctor, this whole situation has got me so terrified!”
As she spoke, my gaze wandered towards the surgical mask comfortably hanging around her neck. Terrified indeed.
I walked into the ER and was greeted by a hysterical sight. A small boy, who I could only assume was the COVID-19 patient, was running around hugging everyone his little arms could reach. The nurses, who were not wearing a shred of PPE, looked more charmed than concerned. All I could see were coronavirus particles floating around him. The toddler’s gaze fell on me and he gave me a toothy smile. I took a hasty step back. Thankfully, his grandmother managed to scoop him up in her arms. I had to admire the lady’s composure. She was handling all of this with remarkable aplomb.
After a quick examination, it was time to draw blood for the lab tests. I stood poised over the toddler with a syringe. At this critical juncture, my glasses perilously began to slip down my nose. I couldn’t resort to my usual defense of using my shoulder to push them back up because the face-shield was in the way. I frantically began scrunching my facial muscles to try and push it back up my nose. This only served to jostle my mask, causing an air-leak and fogging up the face shield. Wonderful.
Luckily, the nurse stepped in just in time to avoid potential disaster. We quickly finished up and sent the boy and grandmother upstairs to the ward.
A little while later, when I went to check on them, I found the grandmother newly outfitted in an N95 mask, face-shield and an air of panic. “No one told me I could catch it from him!” she exclaimed. I managed not to roll my eyes, but I also felt a twinge of pity for her. She’d clearly had a shock.
Now for the next challenge of the day. Conscious of every little movement, I began the arduous process of doffing. The gown and gloves came off easily enough, but the shoe covers proved to be tricky. I spent the next few minutes hopping around in a very undignified manner and finally managed to dislodge the stupid thing. I glanced around worriedly, but luckily no one seemed to have witnessed that little display. I scrubbed my hands with soap like a maniac and hurriedly slathered on sanitiser as well – on my hands, forearms and, for good measure, my neck.
By now, it was nearing the end of my shift. As I trudged up the stairs to the general ward for a final check, a family of three pushed past me as they hurried along. Wasn’t that one of the patients? I raised my eyebrows enquiringly at the nurse. “Oh, his test came back positive, so we’re shifting him to the isolation ward,” she informed me, cool as a cucumber, as if the entire floor hadn’t been exposed to the virus by now. This one hadn’t even bothered with a mask.
I resisted the urge to bang my head on the table. I consoled myself with my favourite coping mechanism and reached for the bottle of sanitiser.
The novelty of the pandemic has worn off and, with it, a healthy fear of the virus. Part ignorance and part laziness – Covid fatigue is real. But if even healthcare workers are affected, what hope is there? The second wave is here, whether we like it or not. If there ever was a time to maintain some semblance of common sense, it is now.
I walked to my car, contemplating the near future.
Sowmya Kruttiventi is a newly-minted doctor trying do her bit to contribute to the Sisyphean task of public health education in India.
Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty