Srinagar: Blood-stained faces and broken bodies are not a new sight for doctors in hospitals here in Kashmir – that is the curse of living in a region riddled with conflict. However, in those cases, emotionally challenging as they are, the doctor has answers about the patient’s chances of survival in most cases.
But when it comes to COVID-19, what answers can the same doctor give when it comes to telling the family of the patient of whether their loved one will make it through the night? In the absence of answers, the doctor is haunted by loss.
How does this doctor go about his day as death and devastation surround him?
As narrated to the author, reproduced below is an account of a doctor currently at the frontlines of a tertiary care hospital in Kashmir.
I am overwhelmed by the silence. The only sound I hear is the rumbling of oxygen cylinders in the forlorn hospital corridor. I rush to get them. In the same moment, bouts of heavy breathing and muffled cries get louder. I cover my ears, and end up waking up in cold sweat.
This is the every day story of my nightmare-riddled sleep after a 32-hour shift.
It all started in April. I was posted in the casualty ward back then. My duty was to admit the patient or to send them home depending upon their status. However, from April 5 onwards, the coming events began to cast their dark shadows. The hospital witnessed a surge in the number of patients with respiratory symptoms. Surprisingly, many of them were young – which was not the case last year.
That said, we sent them home because there was no indication of any severe infection. Much to our surprise, many among the same young patients took a turn for the worse at home. As a result, they had to be brought to the hospital and put on high flow oxygen.
Come April 10, all the hell broke loose. The dreaded bilateral pneumonia and full-blown lung involvement in young patients kept on increasing. Consequently, their deaths became a new normal and medical oxygen became the pivot around which the world revolved.
Even though a lot of people think that doctors have lost empathy, the truth is we feel each death and suffering very deeply. Every young life lost comes as a bolt out of the blue. We have just mastered the art of putting on a veneer of calmness in the face of death. Yet sometimes, the mask falls.
For example, I will forever remember the death of a 19-year-old patient from Central Kashmir. Her eager face and sparkling eyes spoke of countless dreams. Even as she was brought on stretcher a few weeks ago in a serious condition, the youthful vitality wrestled with a strong current of death for as long as it could but ultimately surrendered to it.
Her increasing breathlessness began with normal flu symptoms which her parents believed would go away. However, she worsened with each moment and was brought to the hospital in that state. She was put in triage for one day but showed no sign of recovery.
Following that, she was put on ventilator. After four days, she developed cytokine storm, in which inflammation occurs in the entire body and organs start failing. Her parents often asked me what will happen to her? I ran out of answers.
To make a last ditch effort, I tried to arrange Tocilizumab, an anti-inflammatory drug, but there was an all-India shortage to contend with. We had no vial available. I, along with some other doctors, tried to call various medicine suppliers but to no avail. But then what was the guarantee that the drug would save her life? I could not assure the patient’s family about its success rate even if we procured it.
The whole time, they stared at me with vacant eyes that wanted answers as their daughter lay dying.
Doctors are supposed to have answers for their patients and their families. However, this virus has rendered us clueless.
I often question myself – What are we here for? We are not helping them in any way. All we do is observe, and look towards the skies. The skies offer no consolation so I turn towards my own self for answers… the only answer I get is,
“Chand roz meri jaan, Faqat chand hi roz…’
Hirra Azmat is a journalist based in Srinagar, Kashmir, who covers human interest stories with a special emphasis on health and environment.