The preparations for the 14th Indian National Stroke Congress at Bangalore were on full swing. It was a lifetime opportunity for us to showcase academic prowess and hospitality. As part of the organising team, we had round after round of discussions – ranging from cutting edge scientific topics for international speakers to mundane things like standee placements in the conference hall.
Meanwhile, coronavirus started to inch its way across the world. One day, I got a call from my globe-trotting brother-in-law in the UK as to what special precautions he should take while flying from London to New Zealand via Singapore.
I hadn’t given serious thought to coronavirus until then. Scrambling through various websites, I promptly gave my ‘expert’ opinion.
The very next day, a few of our international speakers emailed us about their inability to make it to the conference. At the heels of the cancellations came the news that the European Radiology and Cardiology conferences had been postponed.
I realised coronavirus was not something to be taken lightly.
The fate of our conference was sealed at an emergency executive committee meet. With hope against hope, after the evening clinic, I dashed to the late evening congregation at the Lalit Ashok hotel. It had been a year’s toil. I had even prepared my talk, only the finishing touches were pending.
I was late thanks to the infamous Bangalore traffic. When I walked in, the board room was full and frantic discussions were on. My worst fears came true and the conference was indefinitely postponed.
The extensive menu served at the hotel after the meeting seemed insipid that night. Crestfallen, I returned home to be greeted by the snugly packed suitcase filled with trinkets and Indian goodies meant for the stroke nurses.
A couple of days passed by uneventfully. I decided to channel all my energy towards my 12-year-old’s annual exam preparations. Alas! The virus played spoilsport again and his exams were cancelled. But I was still unaware of what was in the offing.
The next evening, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that, in four hours’ time, the whole country was going to be placed under a lockdown.
To call it a bolt from the blue hardly does justice. Any and all plans fell apart – our meticulously planned vacation on a cruise, plans for our parents’ 50th wedding anniversary celebration.
The next morning, I woke up to remember that I had to continue emergency and inpatient services even though the entire country was under lockdown. My driver, cook, maid and laundry man all vanished into thin air. The three of us – my husband, our pre-teen son and I – were left to fend for ourselves.
Cooking is not my cup of tea. Having lived in various hostels throughout my life, I could survive on bread, noodles and fruits for endless days. Downing some biscuits into coffee, envying my family members still in deep slumber, I set out for the hospital on foot. Answering anxious phone calls from my parents and sisters, I reached the hospital.
The hospital’s entrance had changed. There were entry and exit points manned by twice the usual number of security guards. A nurse checked the temperature of every person entering the premises, travel histories were jotted down, sanitiser sprinkled, so on and so forth.
A new ‘donning’ room had also been sanctioned. After wearing a PPE suit – which consisted of a face shield, goggles, face mask, a gown and shoe covers, I took a selfie. The initial enthusiasm of wearing a PPE suit gradually died over the next few days. The suits are sweaty, make it difficult to communicate and often feel suffocating. My vision would get foggy with the mist of my own breath. I began to face difficulties in making decisions, and even lose my calm every now and then.
At the clinic, it became clear that patients were apprehensive of hospital visits. Elderly patients had no means of going out to get medicines. Some patients discontinued therapy due to financial woes and some due to the lack of public transport. There were a dime a dozen reasons why patients got sicker by the day. The nursing and the supporting staff were also scared.
‘Pandemic’ was just another word you read about in the community medicine textbook during the third year of medical school. And here we were, witnessing a pandemic in its full might. Though the medical fraternity was not fully geared to face this unforeseen situation, we had to put on a brave face. I learnt the true meaning of fortitude.
Out of the blue, one late Friday evening, I got a call from a medical school friend who is a family physician in Texas. She had tested positive for coronavirus. The four of us from the ‘friends fourever’ WhatsApp group made frenzied calls. We discussed the best course of action for her, ranging from the latest medications to home remedies. After spending a week on tenterhooks, we finally heaved a sigh of relief when she tested negative.
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Life has done a complete 360. My matching ear studs, bangles, rings, bindis, watches lie idle in their cases. My shoulder length hair remains tied in a bun. The morning routine involves running helter skelter for masks, gloves and surgical caps. Routine outpatients were soon replaced by video consults.
For my son to lie in front of the TV from dawn to dusk is the new normal. My husband, a psychologist, has been busy warding off coronavirus fears and anxieties of patients with counselling and relaxation sessions.
However, somewhere in the middle of it all, I have slowly grown to somewhat like this lifestyle dictated by COVID-19. I have no evening clinics to attend, and return home early. I have more time for my son. I enjoy listening to him play the guitar and even virtually travel to the secret sites he builds on Minecraft.
Evening strolls, badminton, having dinner together with the family have become the order of the day. My husband’s superlative culinary skills also came into limelight due to the lockdown. I started reading and writing – a long cherished hobby, which was sacrificed at the altar of my hectic, demanding medical profession.
I started calling my parents frequently, who were only too happy to talk to their sporadically-in-touch daughter. I had the time for endless discussions with colleagues at the Neuro centre. My sisters, cousins, nephews, nieces also called more often than before.
Little acts of kindness like fetching groceries for our elderly neighbour, providing food for the security guard, and some pocket money to the garbage collector made me feel saner. My migraines never resurfaced, my cholesterol levels plummeted and my tummy fat has disappeared.
The reticent walker in me was also in for a sea change. I now look forward to my stroll to the hospital along the Malleswaram boulevards, filled with the heady fragrance of the various unnamed blooms.
None of us pined for the exotic foreign vacation. A lowly virus had shown us the little joys of life; that happiness was amidst us, locked up within us. Coronavirus was successful in cleansing us from within. Our true nature was masked, though to the world, we were unmasked. Maybe we needed it to remind us that life is beautiful and that we need to live each day to its fullest.
Shobha Nandavar is a neurologist and stroke physician based in Bangalore, India.