Volunteers and health workers are the ones people rely on

Pandemic teaches everyone a lesson in gratitude and appreciation

More than a year since they started tending to COVID-19 patients, healthcare workers have remained the support that the families could not offer to patients. Doctors, nurses, ward boys, ambulance drivers and mortuary workers have calmed agitated patients and reassured terrified families as they continue their work. Many of them have to stay away from their families and children. These tireless people who work behind the screens have earned the appreciation and gratitude of patients and their families.

In the pandemic that relentlessly makes its way through cities and towns, people the healthcare workers tended to have learned the importance of these unsung heroes and heroines.

‘Like chasing villains’

K. Sreemathy, an entrepreneur in Chennai, is all praise for the ambulance driver who transported her mother to the Government Stanley Hospital and stayed with her until she was admitted to a ward.

“My mother’s oxygen level fell from 92 to 87 last Saturday around 4 a.m. From 2 o’clock, we were scouting for a bed and our friend urged us to check the State government’s website. My mom stays with my brother and sister, both of whom had tested positive. My sister in Thiruvanmiyur and I called the 108 ambulance service. Seeing her condition, ambulance driver Paal Pandi and his assistant Vivek said she needed a bed with oxygen supply and drove us to Stanley. These guys were amazing. All the way to the hospital they put her on oxygen support, and by the time we reached Royapuram her oxygen saturation rose to 92. We did not know how to go about it. They were with us until the ECG and chest X-ray were done and even until we were brought to another block. They were godsend to us,” she recalls.

She says, “Their professionalism is amazing. Be it driving the ambulance like they were chasing villains in a James Hadley Chase novel. They don’t have much support structure, but they are doing a wonderful work.”

Nallusamy, a retired bus conductor who was treated at the Mohan Kumaramangalam Medical College Hospital, Salem, says he considered seeking treatment at a private hospital but his family prevailed on him. His personal experience has increased his confidence in government facilities.

A resident of Woraiyur is all praise for the team of health workers who ferried her to the Tiruchi government hospital.

“They spend at least 15 hours of their day transporting patients. Sometimes more than one patient is brought to the government hospital at a time owing to a sudden spike in cases. While patients requiring emergency medical attention stay calm, it is the asymptomatic young patients who argue and pick quarrels with health workers. A man travelling with me demanded that he be dropped back home. But the staff handled it well, calmed him down and explained to him the seriousness of the situation,” she says.

A patient discharged from the hospital last week says: “We can see that they have had a hard time over the past year. A young nurse who was looking after me said they had lost count of the hands of patients she had held as they took their last breath. They need far more appreciation than they are getting.” The nurses in the COVID-19 wards have been working relentlessly for the past year. From being apprehensive, they have taken it in their stride.

P. Tharakeswari, a staff nurse at the Coimbatore Medical College Hospital, says last year when cases began pouring in they could not go home for several days. They made video calls to family members. “It was a tough phase in the beginning. Now, I am used to wearing PPE. We hear that the virus is more virulent in the second wave. But we are not afraid to do our service.”

The nurses at the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Government Hospital, Tiruchi, are exhausted. Twelve of them are deployed in each shift of six hours. Each day, 48 nurses are on COVID ward duty. On a given day in a ward of 500 patients, each nurse is responsible for 40-50 patients.

For M. Vatsala, a staff nurse at the Tirupattur Government General Hospital, the hardest part is not being able to hug her son. “My son comes running to hug me when I return from work. But I cannot touch him. This is the hardest part. Though my children are at home, I am not able to spend time with them,” she says. “We have become like mothers to the patients. We do all types of work… We even change the urine bags and the dress of patients. At the end of the day, we go home with body pain,” she adds.

“I don’t mind becoming tired, but I ensure I give my best and I will continue to do it,” she says. Ms. Vatsala says nurses like her wear PPE and work in extreme heat. “We find it hard to even go to the rest room and even have food.”

Staying safe

Emergency medical technician S. Saravanan says he may have transported 1,500 patients since March 2020. “We ensure all support for patients until they reach the hospital,” he says. On a day, approximately 20 patients are transported from across the district. According to him, none of the patients he has transported so far have died on their way to hospital.

“Please cooperate with the government. It is not an easy task to change PPE after every trip,” says Mr. Saravanan of Salem district. His family has been understanding. They will leave his clothes outside the house. He will freshen up and wait for an hour before entering the house.

The pandemic has taken its toll on the physical and mental health of mortuary workers as well, says C. Perumal, who has been working at the mortuary of the Government Rajaji Hospital, Madurai, for 14 years.

The number of cases handled by the workers increased significantly in the past year. Initially, the workers were afraid to touch the bodies. “Then we realised that we must perform our duty to society. Today, we are continuously dealing with bodies of COVID-19 patients without fear,” he says.

It is disheartening to see the families who lost their loved ones to the infection, he says. “They cannot even touch the bodies of their dear ones. But we all believe that through public cooperation we can easily contain the spread of the pandemic.”

Hearse drivers are front-line workers, too, but their service is barely acknowledged. The drivers say they follow safety protocol during and after transporting the deceased.

P. Navinprabhu, district programme manager of the free hearse service in Coimbatore, instilled confidence in the drivers and allocated them duty in shifts so that they could rest and self-quarantine. Staying away from family for several days at a stretch and transporting the bodies of COVID-19 victims is a challenge they had not experienced earlier, they say.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, our team is doing a systematic work. None of the drivers of 14 mortuary vans in Coimbatore district has contracted the virus. All the drivers have also been vaccinated,” Mr. Navinprabhu says.

Behind the staff are senior health officials who remain concerned about their subordinates falling ill as it may lead to a staff shortage. A block medical officer in Tiruppur says around 25 nurses deployed at the three primary health centres there were regularly deputed to COVID Care Centres in the Tiruppur Corporation. The staff nurses could not afford quarantine after they returned to the PHCs owing to manpower shortage.

“When cases are this high, these difficulties are inevitable,” the officer says, as the district reports nearly 500 cases daily, expressing relief that no frontline worker in the block has contracted the virus during second wave.

Eight of the 15 doctors in the block have been roped in for COVID-19 duty, causing a shortage of doctors attending to other patients. “Cooperation from the public is the most important thing. Without that, we cannot do anything else,” the officer says, pointing out that many continue to attend family events in large numbers with scant regard for the protocol.

(With inputs from R. Sujatha in Chennai, Vivek Narayanan in Tirupattur, Vignesh Vijayakumar in Salem, Wilson Thomas and R. Akileish in Coimbatore, Kathaleen Antony in Tiruchi and P.A. Narayani in Madurai)

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