Locked up at our homes, listening to the headlines and watching the mortality rates was a dreadful experience for the entire world. But it was much worse for those frontline workers who were exposed to the virus while fulfilling their duties. Dr Shweta Ram Chandankhede is a Consultant Intensivist at Care Hospitals, Banjara Hills, and one such COVID warrior who has worked day and night to save countless lives during the pandemic. Taking time out of her busy schedule, she spoke to us about her experience throughout these trying times.
Can you tell us about your first encounter with the virus?
In mid-March 2020, we were working like every regular day in ICU, and that is when I got a call from the emergency room to attend to a sick patient with fever and breathing difficulty. Such patients are routine to us, so the patient’s treatment was started immediately, which consisted of putting an NIV mask on his face and allaying his anxiety from close quarters. On enquiring about his health status, it was revealed that he developed these symptoms after a recent trip from a foreign land. A cold wave gripped us, and everyone was frozen with trepidation the next day when the patient’s COVID test was reported positive. From that day onwards, life was never normal like before. The preparedness to face this started sizably from the same day.
How did you prepare yourself to fight the situation and do your best to save lives?
When I was a student, I saw the wrath of the Bhuj earthquake on television and how all the professionals, including doctors, helped the stranded, injured and needy people. It was then that I had decided in my mind that even I would help people in distress. My passion led me to take Critical Care as my career, and here I stand amidst the pandemic with an adrenal surge in myself and an opportunity to do something with a determination to fight it.
What measures did you take initially when we did not have much knowledge about the virus?
In the beginning, I started educating the non-medical staff about the proper way of hand hygiene. Cases were rising every day, and hence preparedness had to be prudent. Initially, we had only one COVID ICU, but with the alarming inflow of cases, many ICUs were converted into the COVID facility overnight to avoid cross-infection. Hats off to our maintenance team---who could do this in the midst of lockdown. The ICUs were thronged with sick patients, and the emergency room was congested with patients waiting for beds in ICUs. At one time, we had to covert the waiting area into a full-fledged ICU to accommodate the ailing patients. It was teamwork. Doctors of all cadres, hospital administration, nurses, housekeeping and non-medical staff, worked in extreme cohesiveness.
What challenges did you face?
I lead one of the many COVID ICUs in our hospital. Pandemic is once in a lifetime experience, which taught me many lessons. I learnt that when you are dealing with such a dreadful situation, you are not only a doctor, but your work becomes multi-faceted. Apart from giving medical treatment, I had to listen and comfort the panic-stricken patients who used to feel that they are stranded in an alien land with everyone surrounded in PPE. From a psychologist to the families, a guide to the staff, a friend to the medical residents, and the team’s motivator, I had to play numerous roles.
Additionally, working in PPE was not an easy task. You have to have good control of your bladder and schedule your meals to avoid wastage of PPE. The amount of heat inside PPE and the fogging of vision while doing skilled procedure was frustrating at times. Sometimes, despite all our efforts, we couldn’t save lives; it was a terrible feeling.
This experience must have affected your mental health too?
Yes, it did. I was exhausted and overwhelmed by everything happening around me. This is when my family and friends supported me a lot; talking to them gave me the strength I needed. Sometimes I used to worry about my family too. But my parents were very supportive and understanding; they reminded me every day that in these testing times, your workplace is your battlefield. Conquer it. And for mental peace, I would mediate. The pandemic taught me to meditate daily. I also clicked pictures of nature and appreciated the little things around me, which helped me calm down.
Can we say that the healthcare sector is now better prepared for such situations?
The pandemic is a very different situation; to combat it is not easy. We have seen a lot of sectors collapse. I feel from now onwards we should be prepared for anything that may come our way. We now know that it is real, and anything can come anytime, for instance, the surge of cases yet again. What we need is increased medical facilities, including staff, ICUs, and more equipments.
What are your thoughts on the vaccination drive and the current situation?
Our country has taken a good initiative to get everyone vaccinated. Since there is no proper medication for it, the vaccine is the only thing that can help us at present. It’s difficult to eradicate it. But people are making it difficult to even control by eradicating good practices. Let’s fight it by maintaining the respiratory etiquette that the virus has taught us. Everyone has to keep their guards up, learn to endure and overcome the situation. – as told to Srivalli