By Debolina Biswas
It began at 10: 45 pm, June 30th, Sunday. My mother and I had just had our dinner. Suddenly, I discovered ten missed calls and a message on my mobile from our village home where my father had been staying for the past ten days to observe the eleven days post-death and sraddho of his father, as per Hindu rituals. The text message from one of my cousins – ‘Urgent, Please pick up the call’ – brought shivers down my spine as I began to anticipate some bad news. I rang them up and learned that my father had not been keeping well for the past few days. This, he didn’t even mention to us, when we had spoken to him during the past few days. This news was enough to give me a sleepless night. My brother returned home late at night and we decided to go to the village house, 75 kms away from our home, the next morning to get him back.
A week prior to the diagnosis of COVID:
Next day, we brought him back home. Our biggest fear was COVID. However, during the next couple of days, he did not have fever, cough, cold, body ache, or any other symptom of COVID. On the contrary, he refused to talk to anyone, with guilt and death looming over his mind. He mostly slept and mourned his father’s demise. His body became fragile as he had been on a boiled rice and mashed banana diet, as per the rituals, for the past ten days. At the time, he was diagnosed with severe depression by his consultant psychiatrist. Later on, his treating physician concluded that it was one of the most atypical presentations of COVID and that the initial symptoms were mostly due to COVID and may be partially due to depression as the symptoms of lethargy, disorientation, irresponsiveness, indifference had subsided after the beginning of treatment for COVID.
However, during this first week, we started receiving the first set of suggestions, prescriptions and diagnosis regarding my father’s condition from some of our relatives. The main “diagnosis” was that since he could not perform the last rite, the sraddho, he is sad, and hence, these symptoms started surfacing. Someone quite confidently told my mother that the so-called MBBS/MD doctors would not be able to treat the disease and that my father needs to visit Dakshineswar temple to perform the last rite and complete the unfinished sraddho. When they saw that we are not paying much attention to these bullshit ideas, they started telling my mother the story of the deceased grandfather who came in someone’s dream and said to her that my father was unwell because he could not perform the last rites of his father.
First day of the nightmare:
The harrowing night arrived when, on the evening of the 6th of July, my father’s oxygen saturation suddenly dipped to 57%, way below normal. We rushed to the emergency of a nearby hospital where he was put on bi-pap immediately after arrival. The doctors suggested to admit him in an ICU immediately as his condition was deteriorating fast. For the time being, he was given some initial support but he needed to be shifted to a proper ICU facility in a different hospital. Thus, the biggest struggle of finding an ICU bed in various hospitals in Kolkata began. I started calling the government helplines where someone answered in a mechanical voice and read the list of hospitals designated for COVID, a piece of information we already had.
However, there was a mismatch between the given list of vacant beds on the government’s official website and the actual vacancy status. Moreover, the same website had absolutely no information regarding the availability of ICU beds in the city hospitals. After making several phone calls to various government and private hospitals, we found that ICU beds were available neither in government hospitals nor in private hospitals. It was excruciating for us that we could not even arrange for an ICU bed for our dying father waiting in the emergency. It seemed that we would not get a chance to even fight the battle. The sheer hopelessness during those moments was unbearable — I broke down and cried right in front of the hospital’s emergency building. All this while, when my brother and I were going through this ordeal, my mother was all alone at home in anticipation.
At this point, fortunately, one of my colleagues and her brother, who is also a doctor, helped us find an ICU bed in one of the hospitals. This step of finding a confirmed ICU bed was absolutely crucial for my father’s survival. We, as a family, owe his life to them. The next hurdle was to get a cardiac ambulance. This was equally crucial for his survival as he required full oxygen support while being transferred to the new hospital. Finally, my brother could arrange one around 12:45 AM. While he was being taken into the ambulance, my father waved at me as I was getting into my car. Suddenly, it struck me: was this going to be the last time that he waved his hands at me? Did he know what a tough battle awaits him?
We started around 12:50 AM. The night outside was wet with drizzles, and the city slept through yet another night. It would have been peaceful if not for the raging siren of the ambulance I was following in my car. I called my mother, my lonely and anxious mother. She heard the siren. How could I explain to her? Console her? But I had to. I did the best I could.
Finally, we reached the hospital at around 2 AM. This journey of an hour was, by far, the worst in my life and has left me with a long-lasting aftershock. At times, it felt as if I was in a nightmare and I badly wanted the night to end. Some of my colleagues and friends stayed awake till we admitted father to the hospital and constantly gave emotional support and strength to me. I met my father for what I was afraid would be the last time while he was shifted from the ambulance to the hospital ward. Once again, he waved his hands and said, “Don’t worry, I will be alright. I will recover and come back.” I told him firmly, “Yes! You will be alright.” But at that point, I felt miserable. I always had this question in my mind – would this be my last meeting with my father?
Finally, both my brother and I returned home at around 3:30 AM in the morning. The past 8 hours had been, so far, the worst, horrid hours of our lives. Neither of us had ever experienced such horrific times. We were mentally exhausted and devastated. We had not drunk any water or had a single morsel of food. Seeing us in that situation, our mother acted very strong and stood like a rock. This night was just the beginning of the long battle.
The hospital admitted my father on the precondition that if he tested positive, he had to be shifted to a COVID designated hospital. The next morning, his sample was taken for the COVID test. His condition was very critical on the morning of 7th July. My brother rushed to the hospital while I, with my mother, stayed back at home as we had to go to the bank to arrange money for my father’s treatment. Although we were not in the mental condition to go out, we pushed ourselves to go to the banks to withdraw money. At that point, we did not have any idea as to how much money was needed. It solely depended on how long my father could fight the situation and how severe his situation gets. Also, some of the private hospitals were charging exorbitant prices. Keeping all those things in mind, we tried to pull out all our savings together to save his life. However, we could only access my brother’s savings and mine. We could access neither father’s account nor mother’s. This put an additional pressure on us for arranging funds. Given this situation, all my friends from HCU and Hyderabad came to the rescue. They arranged for the additional funds and helped for the treatment to be continued for the rest of the days.
While returning from the bank, we met some of our neighbours. With a very heavy heart, my mother broke the news of my father’s hospitalization and his critical condition. The obvious question of the neighbours was whether my father had contracted COVID. My mother replied that the sample had been sent for the COVID test that morning and it would need some time to get a confirmation. They kept hammering the issue of how my brother, despite being a doctor, could not understand whether it was COVID. Unfortunately, that confirmation was not possible as the test procedures required some time. Meanwhile, when we reached home from the bank, my brother reached the hospital and informed us that my father was in a very critical condition. The doctor said they might have to put him on ventilation within two hours. I broke down. So far, I was acting very strong in front of my mother. But this piece of news was so heavy that I felt my heart would explode. I could not help but share this piece of news with my mother. Meanwhile, one of our relatives called us up and confirmed the news of ventilation. It was a horrid time. Both my mother and I were crying. The thought of the worst possible outcome was hitting us. Looking at my father’s spectacles, which I brought back after we had hospitalized him. I kept thinking how I was ever going to be able to stay in this house without him. My mum was crying inconsolably. It was like the end of the world for her. Seeing her in that condition, I felt dread. It is tough, damn tough. It was like experiencing hell. Eventually, I found out that he was never ventilated. The overenthusiastic relative shared a wrong piece of information with us which put both of us in a dreaded situation.
The news of my father’s hospitalization spread fast in the neighbourhood. People started closing their doors and windows as if our house was emitting the virus. Some neighbours called us just to confirm if it was COVID – from two women who had been crying inconsolably for hours. My mother kept crying, lying on one side of the bed, while I was lying on the other side – staring at the ceiling of the room where my father had stayed for the past week. His voice seemed to echo in that room. I could hear him calling out my name and telling me that nothing had happened to him. All this time, many relatives kept calling us and started pouring in with all their insensitive suggestions. In the meantime, I was constantly making calls to find an ICU bed in a COVID designated hospital, in case he needed to be shifted. I was forcing myself to talk to people, even though I only wanted to keep quiet and sleep. Making phone calls appeared like a humongous task. Meanwhile, my mother slept off, as she had been crying a lot, while I kept staring at the ceiling and my father’s voice kept echoing in my ears. It felt like someone was untangling my heart and taking it away. Around 1 PM, my brother called us up. He said, “brace yourself, the doctor said his condition was getting very critical. Bad news can come anytime.” I replied, “Ok. Then what’s the point of searching for a hospital?” He replied, “We have to fight till the end”. So, I kept searching and calling people up . I had become numb at that point. I was looking at the walls, I was blank. It was 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Even though our benevolent neighbours had turned their backs, one of my childhood friends who did not live in the neighbourhood offered us lunch. My friend and her family generously fed both of us for the next two days as we were not in the condition to cook. That night, I got no sleep: every time I closed my eyes, the constant ring of my mobile phone woke me up. I was getting anxiety attacks and constantly felt that someone was ringing me to give the news of my father’s death.
The COVID test report came back positive on the 3rd day and the result was communicated to Sastho Bhaban (West Bengal Govt Health Headquarters), as per government guidelines. Now, more than ever, he needed to be shifted to a COVID designated hospital. So, our main focus was to arrange an ICU bed in a covid designated hospital in the city. However, at that point, there was absolutely no vacant ICU bed either in government hospitals or in private ones. Meanwhile, his condition started deteriorating. In such a situation, shifting to a COVID hospital would still ensure a slim chance of his survival. So far, it was only his critical situation but now, with his covid positive result, I started fearing for my mother’s health. If she also landed up in a similar situation, what would happen to us? I felt miserable and helpless. I was spending sleepless nights. I used to lie down and wake up within a few minutes. Each phone call from an unknown number gave me extreme anxiety about my father’s death.
The inhuman faces of some of the dear neighbours:
This crisis was further accentuated by some of our dear neighbours who decided to gang up and started yelling at us when two persons from the health department of the local municipality visited our home. The health officials only suggested 14 days of home quarantine to us as we were asymptomatic. During this conversation, some of the neighbours were howling in the background. I was baffled by their behaviour. Their main accusation was that we were hiding an ‘elderly diabetic’ with COVID in our home. Having a practising physician at home, someone who has been treating patients tirelessly since the first day of the lockdown, it was surely the most ridiculous thing ever that some layman was diagnosing my father with COVID in spite of my brother (treating physician) being there the whole time. Now, being informed by the health officials that they (neighbours) do not have the risk of getting infected by us, these ‘infectious disease specialists’ started arguing with the officials stating, “Who cares about the WHO guidelines? We might get infected with their windows open.” These benevolent people then humbly demanded that the essential services (gas, milk etc) must be revoked from a family whose father is currently at his death bed. At this point, the leader of the mob hounded us saying, “How can an Assistant Professor be so insensitive?” I guess he was perhaps pointing to the supersensitive attitude of the neighbourhood that did not even care to offer a piece of bread to two starving women who had been broken from inside for the past 72 hours. This long haul lasted for more than 30 minutes, with the outpouring of dangerous toxic language and behaviour that was totally irrelevant to the current scenario. Subsequently, these people decided that it would be best to desert a family whose single member was outside home fighting the entire war alone in order to make the impossible happen. Windows were shut, people started running away from their roof seeing us from almost 10 feet away. We had to call the police station just to make sure that we would open our windows to live in a healthy manner. COVID has finally unmasked the real faces of benevolence and kindness. However, there were a few families in the neighbourhood who did not join this attack group but enquired about the status of my father’s health almost on a daily basis.
Day 4 & 5
From day 1 till the afternoon of the 5th day, I tirelessly made several phone calls to many people. There were friends, colleagues, the family of friends and colleagues who came forward and tried to find an ICU bed in the city. There were many people whom I hardly knew who came forward and spoke to their networks to find out an ICU bed for my father. Finally, on the 5th night, we could shift our father to a COVID designated hospital when one of my dear friends and his cousin helped us to find a bed. This is how the first hurdle of admitting him to a COVID designated hospital was crossed. The rest of the fight was for him to win. As the doctor said, he needed to be alive for five more days to survive and come out of this critical phase.
Rest of the days:
Throughout the rest of the days, we struggled to cope with the severe mental stress, the social stigma attached to the disease, the trauma of the entire incident, and the fear and anxiety of getting infected with COVID. We remained asymptomatic throughout the period. As per the doctor’s suggestions, we tried to get back to a routine of eating on time, cooking, exercising and carrying on with our regular activities to remain calm and composed. However, following a routine and doing our regular activities were not at all an easy task, given that there was still no guarantee that my father would live. We tried our best and gave emotional support and mental strength to each other to sail through the situation. My friends and colleagues, my father’s friends, my mother’s friends and some of our relatives stood beside us throughout and rendered constant motivation, positive energy and mental strength to fight the situation.
Last Day of quarantine and jobless neighbours:
During the home quarantine period, there was an assigned health-care official who would call us every day to enquire about our health status and also about our father’s condition. So, on the last day of our home quarantine, this lady called me and asked me whether my father was released from the hospital. I was a bit surprised by her question but thought it might be a routine question. However, I was proved wrong when, on the same day, around 1 pm, she visited our house and told me that our dear neighbours had been constantly irritating her by making repetitive phone calls to let her know that my father was already at home, even though in reality, he was still at the hospital. I was surprised to see the sheer joblessness of these people. They just would not stop harassing two emotionally vulnerable women, and would continue speculating about our father’s arrival at home and insisted on the health official to confirm their speculation by visiting us. One of the benevolent neighbours also raised the brilliant question of whether the ‘patient’ will come back home after he is released from the hospital? That lady replied, “Is it not obvious that the COVID recovered patient would come back home from the hospital?” It shows these enlightened neighbours could not even rely on the judgement of the city’s top infectious diseases specialist doctors and their recommendation of releasing a covid recovered patient and sending him back home.
Finally, after a long battle on almost every front, we could bring our father back home on the 16th day. His body put up a great fight until the end and came out of the crisis. Throughout the time, he was in a positive spirit and kept reaffirming that he would come back to us. There was an army of people behind this successful journey. People from an unexpected corner extended their emotional, financial and mental support. We could not thank them enough. This journey of saving our father’s life would not have been possible without their help and support. We, as a family, owe his life to these collective efforts and their humanity. The collective support which I received helped me to restore my faith in humanity once again.
Any crisis naturally brings out the best or worst in human beings. COVID has unravelled the cruel face of human beings which was otherwise cloaked in fake smiles, degrees, fame and power. It exposed the naked brutal mentality of mankind. A vaccine might help us get rid of the COVID virus but, I am afraid, the deadlier viruses i.e. lack of empathy, mobbed mentality, harassing the emotionally vulnerable, unscientific temperament of the so-called educated masses are here to stay. I hope that, someday, we invent the vaccine to eliminate these viruses too. This COVID journey has made us stronger. It has also provided us a mirror to understand who our real friends are and who are simply pretenders. Moreover, this situation provided an opportunity to introspect that, at any cost, we should not imbibe those inhuman qualities in us, no matter what situation we may be in.
Debolina is an Assistant Professor of Economics. Her family has survived the covid ordeal very recently and she has taken the time to share her Covid narrative with us.