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This article was originally submitted by Marium Rizwan
The alarm clock rings and you snap your tired eyes open, a millisecond of confusion before realisation hits. So does the exhaustion. Hard.
You drag your aching legs out of bed and begin the day. Too early. Upbeat country music fills your ears as parts of the city flurry by you. The roads aren’t empty enough. You look at the plethora of faces that look back at you with the same accusation: which of these faces is infected? You turn up the volume.
You’re greeted at your destination by the same four-legged friends that made you so excited just a few days ago. You walk past them, the first pang of guilt for the day hits you hard. Like most things these days, they’ve lost their charm. Then comes the time you’ve been dreading since before you closed your eyes last night. You make your way up the stairs and pause at the doorway of the dining room. You let out an audible sigh. Here we go.
Heat. Suffocation. Sweat. Layers and layers and layers of rubber, tape and PPE. You feel like an impenetrable fortress and you don’t like feeling like an impenetrable fortress. But wasn’t that the aim?
You enter a different world in there, a world within a world. Everything beyond your goggles seems to lose focus. Is this because of your goggles fogging up or the decreased oxygen in your body? You wonder as a muffled sound tells you its 8:15. You raise a hand unconsciously to your face wanting to wipe away the sweat trickling down your face, your double gloved hand meets hard plastic goggles.
Time to go. You walk in and are surrounded by endless rows of beds and on those beds are endless rows; of patients and in those patients are endless rows of the virus you spent the past few weeks trying to elude. You feel contaminated. The register you press against your chest feels contaminated. The air you breathe in, smelling strongly of some chemical in that Godforsaken mask feels contaminated.
What can I tell you about this experience? One word comes to mind. Overwhelming.
5 pages on your register. Patient complaints, patient requests, inventory, things needed, things to do. Multiple calls to your medical coordinator. Something is always needed.
And disappointment. Oh, the disappointment. Of making false promises of tomorrows you know will never come. Jee kal aapko chutti de deinge. Kal aapka test kar leinge. Kal aapki pasand ka khana laa deinge.
I have doubted myself a lot over the years, doubted a lot in me. I have, however, never doubted the fact that I was a good person. Not until now.
It overwhelms you, the helplessness. You cant help them all. You cant make them all breathe easier. You can’t make them all happy. As a result, the realisation ages you. It makes you want to go home like the 2 volunteers who couldn’t stand the ppe anymore and left.
Am I a good doctor?
You catch yourself, over and over, wanting to snap at them. Wanting to tell them something sternly. Wanting to say no. But then you look around and remember a sad truth: you are not the victim, they are.
There are times when you still snap, you know better but you do it anyway. You are overwhelmed, you are hot, you cannot see anything because your sweat has literally condensed onto the inside of your goggles. You exist in a hotbox so you snap, you tell them no, you act childish. You get angry.
You don’t reflect then and there beneath layers of ppe. You cant. Your goggles are digging into your forehead, your mask straps are pulling; at the back of your ears and your n95 mask is literally just pushing down on your nose. Your neurons are overworked with the sensations, with the heat. It is when you come home, wash your face and look back at the tired eyes in the mirror that the second pang of guilt for the day floors you.
Am I a good person?
Looking back, it is three names that blare in my memory. Sitara. Sean Michaels. Patient Mr number 302.
Patient 302 lost his wife. While he was isolated over here. A few of his friends call you over.
“Kya aap doctor hai?”
Them: “pakka? Nurse shurse toh nahi hai?”
You get annoyed. You get angry. You ask them what’s wrong. They point to the patient on the bed and tell you his wife was in the ICU and she died today. The patient looks up at you. A single teardrop trickles down his cheek. Sweat trickles down yours. You pause and feel bad. You’re speechless. You cannot remember what exactly 5 years of med school taught you that can make this man feel better. So you console him, you counsel him, you offer him water. You offer sessions with a counsellor. Then you leave and your day goes on.
You lie awake in bed. Patient Mr number 302.
You didn’t even ask for his name. This third pang of guilt hurts. It makes your eyes water. You are ashamed. What was he feeling? He lost his wife. He cannot hold her. He cannot say goodbye, his test isn’t for another week. Can he afford a morgue for so long?
Why did you not sit and hold his hand? Why were your consolations so hurried? How did you counsel this widower and then go pick up a mic and make announcements after 15 minutes?
Am I a good person?
Do better tomorrow.
Tring tring tring. You look down at your phone and find it flooded with messages.
“You’re my hero”
“I’m proud of you”
“You’re so brave”
You feel uncomfortable. But I’m not, your inner voice says back to you. You don’t think so, you don’t agree. You delete the picture you put on your story in ppe. You regret doing that, you feel like an attention seeker and go to bed at 8 pm.
Yes, the ppe hurt, yes, you have marks on your face and a rather stubborn ulcer on your nose. Yes, you are dehydrated and now your skin is horrible. But does that really matter? It doesn’t. Because you walked into the Field Isolation Centre in Karachi knowing that the world was plagued by some disease; believing you could help, you walked out and you saw it in a different light. It wasn’t a flu-like illness anymore.
It was suffering, isolation, depression, helplessness, parents separated from their children, mothers begging to use locked smartphones for 15 minutes under supervision so they could help solve their kids’ homework, broken-hearted children leaving behind ill parents who suffered from dementia, elderly people not knowing where they are and why they’re here. Covid-19 is not a joke.
It’s not all bad though.
Time is merely a concept once you set foot inside the isolation centre. Its a long journey and you find yourself becoming oddly, rapidly, intensely fond of your team. Taqi is your guide on the first day. You’re a little scared, very uncomfortable so you do what you do- you crack a weird joke.
Not here, marium.
But Taqi laughs. You sigh in relief and laugh as well.
6 hours later, you tell Taqi “we’re best friends forever.”
Taqi agrees wholeheartedly.
He pulls out a cheap Pakistani rasala and points at a crossword puzzle. Taqi watches the news for entertainment, you watch bretman rock. You tell him you’re ambidextrous because you drink a lot of water. Taqi tells you he doesn’t think it works like that but he believes in your criteria. You both sit under the spot that the ac works best and giggle away till you’re called for.
Your first time admitting new patients is a tidal wave of confusion.
But it’s okay, you’re not alone. Breathe, marium. But not from your nose, your mask smells like chemicals that make your head hurt. You feel better. Dr amir admits most patients. Dr Amir has kind eyes, he is smart. He always has a solution to most problems, you decide you trust him. You and 5 other people gather around the doors; waiting for the patient to come in. The air is heavy and you think of how the prisoners walked into Shawshank. Just then your thoughts are interrupted. Dr amir turns around and says
“khushi se milenge innse, jaisay hum barat walay hain”
“Assalam o alaikum! Kaisay hain aap jee?”
He half shouts to the patient. You can tell he’s smiling. The patient smiles. From then on, you greet every patient you admit in the same way.
Mehnaz is the senior resident nurse in your hall. Mehnaz shares the van you come in with you. Mahnaz smiles often is always happy to help. She gets you through your first day donning, she brings you a cloth to hold back your hair on your second day of donning. You instinctively look for her every time you don your ppe. Your heart is only content when mehnaz tapes you up. Mahnaz is safe. Mahnaz’s tape will protect you from corona.
You sit in the defogging area with Waqas and Samuel. They’re the janitors in your hall.
“Dr marium hum patients ka ludo chura ke khelein?”
Waqas says, laughing. You like them both. You look forward to seeing them every day. Waqas and Samuel never let you carry anything, hold doors open for you, tell you stories about their families. They always say hello in the morning and ask you how you are. Waqas and Samuel go out of their way to help you do things that are not in their job description. You can depend on them. Waqas and Samuel spot you from afar, call you, get off their chairs and ask you to sit.
” poora din nahi dekha aaj aapko baithay huay Dr marium”
Waqas and Samuel are good people. You are glad you met them.
” haan chalo mai laati houn kaheen se ludo chura ke”, you say as you set off on a ludo hunt.
Your first day is horrible. You come home and send Abira a voice note. Your second day is better. Abira is with you. You sweat together. Complain together. Abira finds a secret ac room. You hide there together, talking about the patients, the good and the bad, marvelling at the good old days when we had nothing to do. Abira’s presence makes you happy. You look forward to showering time where you gossip incessantly and compare the marks on each others’ faces left by the ppe. You are a clenched fist when it comes to expressing emotions but you’re glad Abira did this with you. Abira’s presence makes it bearable. Abira makes your heart happy.
“Excuse me doctor sahab” Mohammad Rashid, Mr number 86 calls after you one afternoon.
He asks for fruit. He says it’s his addiction. He says peaches make hard situations bearable for him. This random bit of information sticks with you. Maybe because this little craving humanizes this corona positive patient for you. He’s not a Mr number, he’s a person. You sneak in peaches wrapped in foil, hidden in your ppe.
They remind you of contraband in prisons; his eyes light up when he sees the peaches, he cries for this small little insignificant act and he prays for you. So you decide you’ll bring him fruit every day. In the coming week Mr Rashid, who previously was on the brink of depression, waits for you to come down and helps you call outpatients for vitals. For the first time in weeks, he smiles. Days pass by and you’re shuffling towards the triage area when you see him sitting with a group of people, laughing. The exhaustion escapes you and your heart is happy.
“Mera beta mujhe uniform fit nahi aata”
Says the ever-smiling face of Mohammad Yousuf, Mr number 11. Happily, you remember him, you remember him because he’s one of the few patients who never complains, always smiles. Next thing you know, he looks at you like he’s proud of you – he appreciates your service. Day in, day out, you bring him uniforms. Then he tries them on, they don’t fit, he smiles and shrugs but never complains. The fact that he’s been in the same kameez for the past 7 days makes you uneasy. Well, it’s time for some contraband again thus you go to chase and you ask for the biggest size. Then you bring it with you the next day.
Next, you stuff it inside your ppe and waddle your way down towards his bed. You’re excited because you know this one will fit. So you wake him up and pull out his shirt and his eyes light up. He then takes off his kameez there and then and puts on your shirt. It fits and he smiles. His smile radiates through your soul. It makes you want to hug him. It makes you smile, it makes you smile your ugly smile, the one that makes your eyes really small and your mouth really big. For the first time in days, you feel like you’ve truly done some good.
Again, one word for this experience? Overwhelming. In a good and bad way.