World Health Day Health

For home nurses, coronavirus lockdown means no going back to families

What does it mean to stay under lockdown in someone else’s home? Ahead of World Health Day, we speak to home nurses who have chosen duty over family

Meenakshi Gulab Shende sits on the floor to video call her daughters, aged two and five. “Ma, when will you come back?” they ask. “I came home this morning, but you were asleep and I had to head back to work!” — she offers an innocent lie. “It’s okay ma, tu zha kamala, me rahin changli (you go work, I will be good)” says the elder daughter. “We will eat our food on time and play with daddy.”

“My heart overflows when I hear them say things like that,” says the 35-year-old over a phone call to The Hindu. Despite living in the same city, it has been 15 days since the Mumbai resident has seen her family in Chembur. She is a home nurse to an elderly person recovering from pneumonia, and the COVID-19 pandemic means she won’t be able to see her family for another 15 days at least.

While we practise physical distancing, and realise what a challenge being cooped up in our own spaces is, home nurses across the country have been living for long stretches in their patients’ houses. They balance the line between remaining professional and getting personal — so easy in such circumstances, all the while being cautious to reduce the spread of infection to people with already-weakened immune systems.

Stepping out with care

“I have been working with this family since February, when the patient had been in Global Hospital, and now I’m in their house. Since the Coronavirus epidemic started, they did not want outsiders to keep coming to their house. They requested that a nurse stay there full time. I debated on it, and decided that would be the right thing to do,” says Meenakshi, who works with ProCare Nursing.

For home nurses, coronavirus lockdown means no going back to families

Meanwhile, she says, she has been in touch with other nurses who are doing shift-duty. “They tell me that they take buses, now that trains have stopped,” she says. “There is a fear, that there may be some miscommunication, and despite ID cards, they could get beaten up by the police.”

It is a sentiment echoed by Dinny Joseph, a nurse with Portea Medical in Bengaluru. “After the lockdown, it was very difficult to travel to patients’ houses without public transportation. The police used to stop us from travelling in our private vehicles and ask us questions related to our purpose of travel, where we were going, and so on. Some of them permitted us to travel after checking our identity cards while others would flatly refuse. However, two days ago, we received passes from the authorities which were approved by the Commissioner of Police. Now it is much easier.”

In West Bengal, Gopal Pareek has been doing 24 hours of on-off duty for a person who is recovering from a stroke. Healthcare at Home, the company that he works with, has been providing him and the rest of their staff with transport. “Some houses, especially where it is just an elderly couple, have a separate room for nurses. But in other cases, we offer transport for nurses to go to the patients’ homes,” says Unit Head Meraz Sheikh. “Since we want to limit exposure, we have 24-hour shifts so that homes will have to receive one person per day.”

The home that Gopal visits has just two bedrooms. “One room is for the patient, and the rest of the three members of the family — his wife, and two sons — have to adjust in the other room,” says Gopal. In cramped spaces, when living together for a long period of time, they have no other option but to live like a family, he adds.

Home away from home

His own family is in Bikaner, Rajasthan, while he lives in a hostel, provided by Healthcare at Home for their many staff members who come from the interior parts of West Bengal and Bihar. “My family is very worried. Before this epidemic, they would call me once a day. And now if they don’t hear from me in four hours, it is a direct video call!”

For home nurses, coronavirus lockdown means no going back to families

Back in West Bengal, he says, the family he lives with was not completely trusting of him, initially. “They would ask me questions they knew the answers to, because they wanted to check if I was good at my job. But eventually they started respecting me,” says the 24-year-old. Now it is not just their father’s health that they enquire after; the two sons, not much elder to Gopal, share stories from their lives with him, and ask after Gopal’s family. “For the first few days, I sat outside the patient’s room and had my food alone, but now we eat together at the dinner table,” he says.

Meenakshi, on the other hand, says she still eats sitting outside the kitchen, and sleeps on a mattress near the patient’s bed. “We have to be alert, because the patient needs constant monitoring and can get bed sores if we don’t change their position every once in a while.” Yet, she speaks of the family she lives with lovingly: “Everybody in this family is nice, they ask about me, and make sure I am doing alright.”

Since she is working with someone who is recovering from pneumonia — an infection of the lungs — it is even more important for her to stay safe, for both her and the family’s sake. “As nurses, we handle pus, urine, saliva from coughs... we need to be careful at every point. We have to be in complete safety gear.”

In fact, it is because of the nature of their work that they are already well-versed in taking care of people with communicable diseases, explains Dinny. “The precautions and the risk involved during this pandemic don’t cause any additional stress to us. It is just that we have to be extra vigilant at all times.”

What do they really feel about their job? Says Meenakshi, “A doctor gives solutions, but nurses are the ones who do the practical work of bringing that into action.”

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Printable version | Jun 5, 2020 12:53:00 PM |

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