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Covid-19 warriors: The ones who keep calm and carry on

Hoihnu Hauzel | Updated on September 18, 2020 Published on September 17, 2020

Never say die: Apart from scientists working on a Covid-19 vaccine and doctors at hospitals, nurses, attendants and sanitation workers are writing a new chapter in the service of humanity ISTOCK.COM   -  Getty Images/iStockphoto

A patient in a Covid-19 ward in Delhi NCR finds strength, affection and inspiration in the health workers who keep the deadly virus from pulling her down

* I look at Sonali Gurung (21) — trapped inside her PPE suit, which she is supposed to don for six hours but invariably wears longer — and the joy that she exudes. Suddenly, I no longer feel sorry for myself

* Sherin Koshy, head of nursing at the Covid-19 ward, is waiting for the day when she can hug her 11-year-old daughter. They live in the same house, but Koshy has not embraced her for more than four months

* 29-year-old Shishupal Singh keeps difficult patients happy, deftly dealing with those who refuse food, who weep, complain and even abuse the hospital staff

I can see her eyes — and they are dancing above the face mask and under the shield. I can feel her smile, too. It is my second night at a private hospital in Gurugram, where I have been admitted after being tested positive for Covid-19. Her touch is gentle, and as she strokes my veins where a canola has been needled in, I start to cry.

“What are you scared of,” the nurse says comfortingly to me in Hindi. She goes around my little space, bordered by curtains, performing her duty so efficiently, swiftly and pleasantly that her very presence cheers up the ward. I look at her — trapped inside her PPE suit, which she is supposed to don for six hours but invariably wears longer — and the joy that she exudes. Suddenly, I no longer feel sorry for myself.

I had no idea — till that day last month — that a week of lingering unease and a sense of fatigue was the result of the dreaded virus. Shock, shame and pain engulfed me. How could it have happened to me, when I was so careful?

But it had, and now I am in this spotlessly clean ward, watching the front-line workers — the eager housekeeping staff and the hard-working nurses. And I look at Sonali Gurung, as she lights up the otherwise dim Covid-19 ward each time she walks in with her infectious smile. She checks on all of us. Does anyone need anything, she asks. I want biscuits but food service hours are over. She comes back later with three packets of biscuits, and quietly places them by my side.

Be positive: Nurse Sonali Gurung says her love for people fuels her passion for work   -  HOIHNU HAUZEL

 

Gurung (21) is a resident of Chamba district of Himachal Pradesh. Her father, a retired home guard, raised his two daughters as fearless women who would always be of service to the country. She wanted to join the Army, but couldn’t get into the forces. So, she studied nursing from Kakira in Chamba, and joined Fortis in February this year. The virus has kept her on her feet since then, but one of the perks of being here, she adds, is that she loves people. “That cheers me up.”

She draws my curtain, gives me my medicine, ensures there is hot water for me, and then gets ready to leave for the day. And then she tells me, in her sweet and tender voice, “Never be afraid of Covid-19; you will fight it. See, I am not afraid, I am here.”

She leaves me teary-eyed every time she goes home. But I cheer up at the thought that I am going to see her again the next day.

Just as I am happy to see Gaurav Sharma, a 24-year-old youth from Krishangarh, a village near Alwar in Rajasthan. I recognise him by his smile and eyebrows that dance.

After completing his BSc from Athina Nursing College in Bhiwadi in 2018, he joined Fortis in November 2019. One day in 2020, soon after the dreaded virus broke out, he and many of his colleagues were asked if they would want to volunteer as Covid-19 warriors in a special ward of the hospital. He says it did not take him even a minute to say yes. “If I did not do it, who will,” he asks. Wasn’t he afraid? Initially, he says, a strange fear gripped him but he soon overcame that.

Front-line health workers such as Sharma risk their lives every day in taking care of patients. Most of these Covid-19 warriors are from the interiors of India, and have come to Delhi to follow their dreams, to make a difference, to stand up and be counted.

Arun Kumar is among them. I know that the 24-year-old from Govardhan, Uttar Pradesh, is on his way to the ward when I hear the food trolley being pushed energetically. He is a confident young man, who loves to chat while he unloads my food tray.

“Have you heard of Mukesh Ambani? The richer brother?” he asks. He looks pleased when I nod. He worked at Ambani’s Jamnagar Refinery for two years before he joined Fortis two months ago. He was one among many engaged in installing cable pipes. He left Jamnagar before the lockdown, and never went back. Instead, Kumar, who has done his schooling, is happy to assist the nursing staff.

A large part of his work in the ward revolves around serving food, cleaning and clearing tables, distributing clean linen, towels and hospital wear. In addition, he assists nurses on duty. Sharma hopes to work in a government hospital one day for the job security and perks, while Gurung still wants to join the Army. What does Kumar want to do?

“I don’t want anything more. I am happy,” he replies.

****

Some dreams have little to do with aspirations. Sherin Koshy, head of nursing at the Covid-19 ward, is waiting for the day when she can hug her 11-year-old daughter. They live in the same house, but Koshy has not embraced her for more than four months.

Once off duty, she goes home, bathes, changes and stays in isolation every day. She does not dine with the family. She eats, watches TV and sleeps all alone at home. The possibility of carrying the virus is always on her mind, but she resolutely disregards her fears. “If I do not train my mind to be fearless I cannot perform,” she reasons.

Originally from Punalur, a tiny hill town in Kerala’s Kollam district, she came to Delhi in 2008, armed with a nursing degree. At Fortis, she oversees daily operations — including ensuring that the morale of her colleagues is high. She threw herself into the job when the novel coronavirus spread and the hospital was struggling to find its feet. She saw the grim situation as an opportunity to dive into something new and meaningful. Her accountant husband and daughter stood by her decision to take on added responsibilities.

Koshy and her family are Permanent Resident card-holders of Canada, and they have the choice to go back to the North American country, where they had previously lived. But that’s not an option they are looking at. Home is here now.

The best part of the day, she says, is when she changes into her normal clothes. “Then I take a deep breath and relax.”

****

Like Koshy, Shishupal Singh wields his seniority with care. The 29-year-old, the second-most senior staff in the nursing department, is a natural problem solver, a negotiator, a pacifier and a great team leader. He keeps difficult patients happy, deftly dealing with those who refuse food, who weep, complain and even abuse the hospital staff.

We shall overcome: Shishupal Singh says his father is deeply proud of the work his son is engaged in   -  HOIHNU HAUZEL

 

He is from Sikar in Rajasthan, and was inspired by his elder brother to pursue nursing. The two graduated from Bengaluru’s Diana School of Nursing — moving away from agriculture practised by the family for generations. Their father, he says, is deeply proud of the work the sons are engaged in. When they were unable to get leave to go home, he urged them to continue with the good work, serving those who need them the most.

He is the one who can find my elusive vein and gently jab a needle into it, and assuages my fear of injections. And he knows that! Before his off-day, he announces, teasingly, “I am not there to take your sample tomorrow; so God bless you.”

There is a quiet side of him that unfolds when he is a bit relaxed. I catch up with him during one such moment. He talks — with pride and love — about his wife, a nursing student, now back in his village. And how much he misses her every day.

He nurtures a dream of working overseas. Three years ago, he almost got conned on the Internet by fraudsters who said they were running a consulting agency and offered him a job abroad. After an email interview and a telephonic one, he went to a so-called office to deposit the money that the the conmen had asked for. But something didn’t seem right. He asked the receptionist at the office, and was told that the company was fake. He quickly left, with his life’s savings.

For now, he is happy with his work. Seeing him trapped inside his PPE suit through the day, without food or a break, I am amazed at how he runs around smiling, joking and meeting the requirements of every patient.

“Be positive to stay positive,” he tells us all.

I must have taken his words seriously. On the eighth day at the hospital, I test negative for Covid-19. As I get ready to leave, I look back at the ward. An eight-day stay is not enough to tell the heroic tales of these tireless and brave front-line warriors. Stay safe, my friends.

Hoihnu Hauzel is a writer based in Delhi NCR

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Published on September 17, 2020
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