Dr. Kalpana Aggarwal, senior paramedic at a premier hospital in the capital of India, tested positive for COVID-19 on March 29, 2020. This is a first-person account.
As a paramedic, a health care worker, one tends to feel invincible. It's a paradox because one sees illness and suffering up close. Yet, perhaps because we are the ones helping people to overcome it, we have to act with the deeply internalized belief that illness can be overcome. I remember having a conversation with my daughter, I said, "I work in a hospital, I'm sure I have an inbuilt immunity which is better than most". Today, I realize how complacent I was.
I don't even know how I got the Coronavirus - I had no recent travel history, I had not come in contact with anyone who had been abroad (at least to the best of my knowledge). I've always been meticulous about cleanliness and hand hygiene. I was wearing a mask at hospital while interacting with patients and attendants, washing my hands after every patient interaction - using a sanitizer frequently during the day. I have no idea who gave me this virus - so I guess that belies the government's claim of No Community Spread in our country.
After I tested positive, my first thought was for my daughter who was almost six months pregnant. I sent up a prayer thanking god that I hadn't met her for two weeks! Close on its heels came the next one - for my family, my colleagues and friends at work - I spent the whole night praying that I hadn't infected anyone.
And then the fear set in. I was suddenly no longer just a health care worker - I was an ordinary mortal! And I was scared. What would it entail? How was my family going to be treated, how were my colleagues and co-workers going to react?
Once I tested positive, the wheels of the government machinery started rolling - on Sunday morning (my test result came in on Saturday evening), I started getting calls from the Health Department of the Delhi government: was I symptomatic, who was my primary physician, who all did I meet in the days preceding my test, have any of my contacts tested positive or exhibited symptoms, etc.
Despite my telling officials that I could very easily isolate myself at home, they insisted I be hospitalized. My physician told me to be prepared for upto ten days of hospitalisation. I was feeling quite alright, no major discomfort, and because our hospital did not have an infectious diseases ambulance, I drove myself to the hospital. As I was driving (it's almost 37 kms from my home to the hospital), I was wondering "Will I drive this route again?" All thanks to the hospital administration, the admission process was seamless, and before I knew it I was in the isolation ward of the hospital.
Within the hour, the calls started- the Department of Health, the local police and the Sub-Divisional Magistrate's office. My first reaction was of immense gratitude - after all, the common man in India is not used to having government officials enquiring about her health and wellbeing! Initially, they all enquired after my health, wanting to ensure that I was well and comfortable and being well taken care of.
I knew that my family, colleagues and all the people I had come in contact with in the recent past were going to be tested for this deadly virus regardless of their being asymptomatic. The reports started filtering in; all negative! Praise to the Lord - I had not managed to spread the infection to any of my immediate contacts- not my family and not my colleagues.
And then started the invasion of privacy - a barrage of calls from various government agencies, all asking the same set of questions! What were your symptoms, when did you get tested, when did you get admitted, who all did you meet before getting admitted, etc. Each agency called every day and asked the same questions! The SHO from the local police station actually said, "Madam, we have instructions to take the names of at least a hundred people that you may have come in contact with prior to your admission here. Aapko 100 log ka naam toh dena padega!"
The last straw was when I got a call from the Crime Branch of the Delhi Police - asking me who I had met prior to being hospitalized. That day, I broke down and cried! Had I committed a crime? That day, I understood why that young bride fled from Mumbai to Agra, evading quarantine. I don't want to be made to feel like a criminal, nor do I want my family and friends to be subjected to endless interrogation! Can you imagine being asked to list out the name of every individual you have met 15 days prior to feeling your first symptom right up to the day you went into isolation? And when you express your inability to do so you are told that you are not cooperating with the government - this coming from a policeman of the Crime Branch of the Delhi Police!
Then the Delhi Government put up a placard on the gate of my house - "COVID POSITIVE - IN QUARANTINE TILL 11/04/2020) - this happened on the 30th of March. Subsequently, on the 10th of April , they declared the whole lane as a containment zone (which it is till today, i.e. April 28 - I was discharged on April 18).
I'd got admitted on a Sunday afternoon; when my treating physician met me the next day, she said "Madam, we'll test you on Thursday now." I was by then resigned to being there for at least a week - I thought to myself, "Not bad, they'll test me Thursday and then repeat the test on Saturday and by Sunday, I should be back home".
Come Thursday morning, fraught with anxiety and anticipation, I waited for the doctor. My sample given, I was quite excited - very, very sure that I'd get a negative report and be ready for re-testing on Saturday! After all I had no fever, no sore throat, all my symptoms had gone. The first disappointment came my report for the first sample was delayed because my sample did not go the laboratory for testing on time. Close on its heels, on Friday night, I got my second shock of the day - I had tested positive. And then it started, a series of tests - one positive after the other.
Much as I like my solitude, this was an altogether different ball game! All alone, in a room, seeing no one, meeting only the doctor for 20 seconds every day, and not knowing how or when it would all end...
I don't think I can ever express in words, my feelings for those who kept me going during these weeks. You expect some friends to be there for you - but do you expect a F&B night manager to be there for you? I don't even know his name, let alone what he looks like, but every single evening at 7.30 pm I'd get a call from him - "Ma'am can I make something special for you"? "Ma'am I'm sending you a pineapple pastry today - I hope you like it"! So much so, that on the day I was discharged, this young man, called me and told me to delay my discharge by 15 minutes because he wanted to send me a chocolate pastry.
Every morning, without fail, an angel of mercy would get me fresh home-cooked breakfast, with fruits. I was getting all my meals from the hospital and I could have asked for anything that I wanted - but no, she wanted me to have home-cooked food! She did not take a day's leave during the three weeks that I was in the hospital because she wanted to be there for me.
After I was discharged, I came to know that members of our staff, young nurses and others, had been fasting for me. My colleagues' young children and their domestic help had been praying and fasting for my recovery! These are the ones to whom I owe a debt of gratitude which I know I'll never be able to repay.
I was tested four times before I tested negative. But the next report came back positive for Covid 19- I cannot even begin to express my disappointment. The fear came back with a vengeance when a patient from my ward (a 55-year-old) had to be shifted to the ICU because of respiratory symptoms (he unfortunately did not make it).
That's when I dug my heels in and said that I would like my sample to be taken by the same lab that had initially diagnosed me as being Covid positive. Thankfully, due to the intervention of my senior colleagues, the hospital authorities made an exception and the technician from Delhi was allowed to cross the border and enter the hospital premises. My seventh sample was taken and finally, 19 days from the day I was admitted to the hospital, I again tested negative.
My final negative report came in at 6.15 pm on the 18th evening and my colleagues in the hospital swung into action - they promised me that I'd be home for dinner that night!
Along with the joy of having tested negative was a huge fear of the reception that I would get on reaching the colony. I'd been reading horror stories about the way healthcare workers were being treated on coming back - female doctors being beaten up by colony residents for coming back home after spending days treating Covid positive patients. One of the staff nurses in the isolation ward where I was admitted told me that they were being prevented from entering their hostel rooms by other nurses for fear of being infected by the deadly virus- as a result they were having to stay in the hospital itself.
Anyhow, 21 days from the day that I got admitted, I drove back home at night. When I was about 2 km away from home, I called up and told them that I would be reaching soon and they should get the barriers removed so that I may enter the colony and park my car. Upon reaching the colony gate, I was very pleasantly surprised when the watchman didn't stop my car or ask any questions. He only told me to roll down the windows of my car as I drove in. I did as asked and slowly started inching my way towards my house - imagine my surprise when I saw people had lit candles at their doorsteps and on their gate posts. All my neighbours were out in full strength at their gates, clapping and cheering me on. One of our neighbours is a flautist and he was playing the flute for me. Almost 75 families were out cheering me on - and not one of them broke the barriers of social distancing. I have never felt so humbled in my life as I did at that moment.
Even today, our house and nine others continue to be in a containment zone but have we lacked for anything? No, not at all - other families in the colony are ensuring that we get our daily supply of milk and essentials without having to ask for anything. There seems to be an unwritten pact between them that these houses are their shared responsibility.
So yes, I tested positive, went through the trauma of it all - and have managed to retain and rather reinforce my faith in the goodness of mankind.
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