US

Being a frontline warrior through the eyes of a junior doctor

US
By Dr. Nirmeen Maroof
Fri, 08, 20

As the days wore on, uncertainty gave way to paranoia. Slowly, the usually bustling halls grew empty....

HEALTHWISE

“I declare. That later on, even in an age unlike our own, someone will remember who we are.”

-Sappho

What’s it like? People often ask me. What’s it like, being at the frontline against the single greatest pandemic to hit the modern age?

To be honest, I had no idea it would get this bad.

When I started out as a house officer (a junior doctor fresh out of medical school and the lowest rung on the ladder of medical hierarchy) everything was still quite uncertain; there weren’t so many lockdown restrictions and shops were still allowed to operate at their regular hours. I would show up to work, put on my protective gear and head out to check up on my patients. For safety reasons though, we were given a gap between each day, to minimize the risk of exposure to the virus.

Even then, it did not occur to me how far the situation would escalate. It was only a matter of time, I thought, before things would go back to normal.

That was in April.

As the days wore on, uncertainty gave way to paranoia. Slowly, the usually bustling halls grew empty. Patients, as it turned out, were too scared to come to the hospital.

Then, one day, the doctors stopped showing up. Just like that. One day, I arrived at work to find that one of my superiors was not present. He didn’t come around that afternoon either. Later on, I learned that he had been tested positive for COVID-19 and was being quarantined at home.

Soon, one by one, people I knew, people I had worked with, dropped out of sight as they developed symptoms. This included nurses, staff members, fellow house officers, post-graduate residents … and even professors. The symptoms were more or less the same – a sudden onset of fever, sore throat and bodily aches. However, one thing was certain: no one was safe.

Death had now become a part of routine life. Every day, we were hit with headlines of rising numbers, of new, resistant mutant strains, of secondary infections and constantly evolving symptoms.

I recall once, spending an entire evening of duty in a melancholy stupor after learning about a medical student’s death. I was roughly brought back to my own days as a student, and how I had looked forward to the future with grand plans of my own.

As weeks turned to months, it began to feel like we were fighting a pointless fight. It seemed like no matter what we did or how many precautions we took, the curve just wouldn’t flatten. We were trying to put out a forest fire with a garden hose. The grip of fear tightened with every passing second.

My colleagues and I took all the necessary precautions, of course. We maintained social distancing and wore our masks and face visors. We washed our hands. We were even advised to maintain a safe distance of five feet when examining patients and to only perform a physical exam if absolutely necessary. If any patient displayed any signs of fever along with an upper respiratory tract infection, we were told to send them off for testing immediately.

One time, a colleague of mine was asked to assess the health of a newborn baby. It was only when he arrived in the labour room that he learned that the lady in question was in fact a symptomatic COVID-19 patient. At that time, we were still unsure of how exactly the virus could be transmitted. Rather than risk exposing everyone else to this fatal virus, he was told by the senior to go home as soon as he was done with the task and isolate himself for a few days.

Another incident I remember vividly was how another senior doctor was wrenched out in the middle of duty, because her husband had tested positive for the virus and had been rushed to the hospital. Similarly, another doctor was told to go home because she had started developing shortness of breath and fever halfway through her shift.

In order to cope with the rising losses, more and more doctors were called on even when it wasn’t their day of duty and in return, the replacements were also exposed to the virus. Thus, an infuriating, paradoxical situation was created, with no win in sight.

That’s how bad it is.

Now, it is August. Things have calmed down a bit. The fight is still raging on. We are still in this bubble of paranoia and uncertainty, though the latter wins by quite a margin. Every day, new things are being discovered. Some useful, some useless. We still don’t know where we’ll go from here. Is the curve flattening or are we just like lambs to the slaughter, waiting for another surge? How many more deaths before a vaccine is discovered?

These are all the things I think about constantly. Nothing is certain. Like every single crossroad in history, there is no blueprint to consult from, no handbook to tell us exactly what to do.

But there is one thing that is monumentally clear. Whatever the world was, before this pandemic, it won’t be the same now.