COVID-19: Doctors toil and wilt as India battles the virus

Greater Noida: In suffocating full protective gear inside an intensive care unit with no air conditioning, doctor Showkat Nazir Wani is risking his life battling brutal heat and treating coronavirus patients.

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Almost 100 Indian doctors have died since the pandemic began, working punishingly long hours in temperatures that can top 40 degrees Celsius.

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“Wearing this PPE kit at the temperature of 40 degrees, it’s very difficult, I can say because you are drenched in sweat. Still, (we try) to do our best to save the lives of patients,” Wani, a resident doctor at the private Sharda Hospital in Greater Noida outside New Delhi, said.

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“It feels very hot and suffocating. But we have to wear it for our own safety,” the 29-year-old said before rushing to attend to a patient battling a lung collapse.

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India on Friday hit a million coronavirus cases, the third-highest total in the world, with no sign yet of the infection curve flattening as new cases emerge in rural areas. More than 25,000 people have died nationally.

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The country has some of the lowest per capita health care spending in the world and poorly paid staff working in dilapidated state hospitals are highly vulnerable.

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The Indian Medical Association, a voluntary group of doctors which says 99 physicians have died so far, this week issued a “red alert”.

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“Doctors need to take charge of the situation and ensure the safety of themselves, their families, their colleagues and staff,” it said in a statement.

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Nausea and dizziness

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Sharda Hospital has been providing free treatment to COVID-19 patients under instructions from the state government, which means facilities are basic and many patients are poor.

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Not all patients are in hospital gowns. One was on a bed wearing a bedraggled T-shirt with bloodstains.

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Because there is no air conditioning, doctors and nurses are quickly drenched in sweat.

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Since they are enveloped head-to-foot in plastic protective gear, the sweat can’t evaporate to cool them down.

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And as going to the toilet means removing all the gear and then putting a new set, some staff skimp on drinking enough water.

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Nausea and dizziness can sometimes ensue, and in the long term the staff can risk serious problems, including organ damage.

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Abhishek Deshwal, who heads the hospital’s intensive care unit, said working in such heat while wearing the body suits was “doubly stressful for the staff”.

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“But we are trying to do our best, we don’t have any other option.”

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Mental toll

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Some staff have quit or gone on long leave, forcing the government to rope in medical students and even retired staff.

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The virus has also affected their relationships with families, and some have admitted being weighed down mentally.

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Wani, for instance, has not seen his family based in Indian Kashmir since the outbreak began in March.

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As a resident doctor, he is on “Covid call” 24/7, and has hardly had any time to socialise.

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Dramatic scenes that unfold in the ICU play on his mind constantly, with every death affecting him “deeply”.

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“Covid patients often get delirious. They refuse to eat, pull away their tubes and even get violent with us,” he said.

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One of his patients once slapped a nurse and tried to hit him as well.

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“But I try to be patient with them. I have often held their hands to reassure them because they are all alone without their loved ones, sometimes for days at end.

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“I share these experiences with my parents over the phone. They are obviously very concerned for me but they appreciate my work. Their appreciation motivates me to work even harder.”

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