Meet the nurses who have set aside their families and lives to take care of patients during the COVID-19 pandemic

Inside the COVID-19 OPD at Chennai’s Government Stanley Medical College Hospital   | Photo Credit: B. JOTHI RAMALINGAM

As she steps into Ward 206 of Rajiv Gandhi Government General Hospital (RGGGH) in Chennai, V. Murugeswari stops to utter a silent prayer. It is 7.30 a.m., and she is seconds away from starting her six-hour shift inside the COVID-19 ICU . Covered head to toe in protective wear, the 39-year-old staff nurse sets about attending to the 16 critically ill patients battling the novel coronavirus here.

Murugeswari, a mother of two, begins with a basic health check of all patients. She stands by their bedside, wielding the power of words. “I believe that instilling confidence helps them. Through their hospitalisation, they are going to see us as their family. I tell my patients not to be afraid, that they need to be mentally strong to conquer the illness. Ithuvum kadanthu pogum (this too shall pass),” she says.

As the shift progresses, the PPE she wears gets stifling. Her neck and back hurt, but Murugeswari, like her colleagues, knows she must carry on. Whether it is the six-hour morning and afternoon shifts or the 12-hour night shift, work never stops in the ICU. “The unit is always busy. Patients are continuously wheeled in, and those who are stable must be shifted to the general wards,” she says.

Tamil Nadu, like almost all of India, has been battling COVID-19 since March, and it is the hundreds of staff nurses like Murugeswari who have been the invisible faces behind the one lakh and more recoveries the State has seen. At the forefront of the COVID-19 response team, many of them stay away from homes and families, but remain indomitable in these extraordinarily challenging times.

Inside the COVID-19 intensive care unit at Chennai’s Government Stanley Medical College Hospital

Inside the COVID-19 intensive care unit at Chennai’s Government Stanley Medical College Hospital   | Photo Credit: B. JOTHI RAMALINGAM

We shall overcome

What brings them most joy and relief these days is the journey of a critically ill patient from the ICU to the COVID-19 general ward. When Kishore Kumar, 35, (name changed) came in, he was morbidly obese and had severe breathing difficulty. He was put on a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) mask. Recording his oxygen saturation levels, Murugeswari used to tell him every day, “Brother, you can overcome this, don’t fear and don’t be depressed.”

A fortnight ago, Murugeswari tested positive for the virus. It had been three months of working in the COVID-19 ICU, and when she experienced unbearable body ache at the end of a shift, she decided to get tested. A day later, the result came positive. After treatment, she is back home and in isolation but looks ahead to getting back to work, more energised.

Some 25 km away, S. Prabakaran is all set for his day at work. In the next six to seven hours, he will visit the bedsides of 150 to 160 patients, checking temperatures and monitoring vital parameters, most importantly oxygen saturation levels. The task is nothing new for Prabakaran, but the circumstances are. He gulps down a lot of water to keep himself hydrated for the entire shift. He dons a coverall, goggles, masks and gloves before stepping into a hall filled with asymptomatic COVID-19 patients.

Pushed to the backseat

A staff nurse attached to the Periyar Nagar Urban Primary Health Centre of the Poonamallee Health Unit District, Prabakaran has been on COVID-19 duty at an engineering college that has been converted into a care centre for asymptomatic patients. As he carefully records the parameters of every patient, his goggles fog up and he sweats profusely. “Yes, wearing PPE is extremely difficult. But this is my job and I am adapting to it,” he says. As the ward rounds come to an end, he gets busy entering the details in the patient registry.

Nurses assist a patient at Stanley Hospital

Nurses assist a patient at Stanley Hospital   | Photo Credit: B. JOTHI RAMALINGAM

In the midst of a pandemic, many healthcare providers, especially staff nurses like Prabakaran, have pushed their personal lives to the back seat. Living in a room arranged for by the health department, it has been nearly three months since he went home. “My daughter was born on April 29, and that was the only time I saw her in person. My interaction with her and my wife is limited to video calls every day,” he says.

Standing at the COVID-19 OPD of RGGGH, A. Sheela, 53, nursing superintendent grade-2, looks at the anxious faces of the patients waiting in a queue for their turn to be screened. She takes a minute off work to strike up a conversation with a few of them, telling them to put aside their fears.

“We get to see all categories of patients at the OPD. Some may have tested positive, while some would have come for investigation. If there is one thing that is common to most of them, it is fear and stress,” she says.

After working at the Regional Institute of Ophthalmology and Government Ophthalmic Hospital for 25 years, she moved to RGGGH in November 2019. The last five of her eight months here have been on COVID-19 duty. At the OPD, along with her colleagues, she screens patients and categorises them, based on symptoms, into those needing hospital care, institutional quarantine or home isolation.

Well aware of the risks involved, nurses know that their own personal safety is equally important. But often their instincts as healthcare providers come first. “One day, a person who had tested positive, walked into the OPD. He was waiting for a blood test when he suddenly collapsed. Without thinking, a colleague and I helped carry him to Emergency. At such times, we tend to forget about ourselves and put the patient first,” Sheela recalls.

A nurse pauses from work at Omandurar Government Medical College Hospital, Chennai

A nurse pauses from work at Omandurar Government Medical College Hospital, Chennai   | Photo Credit: B. JOTHI RAMALINGAM

For many nurses like Sheela, work could not have been possible without the support of their families.

On March 31, A. Mary Josephine, a nurse for 37 years, was all set to retire as a matron from the state-run Stanley Medical College Hospital. But as the pandemic struck, she, like many others who had recently retired, was put on extension. Now playing an administrative role, she ensures that her army of staff nurses on duty have everything they need.

At work, there was nothing Mary would not do: from ward rounds to checking on housekeeping and disinfection, she did it all. Until she was struck by the virus. “When I was admitted for 14 days, my family insisted that I should not return to work. The death of two nurses at RGGGH added to their fears. But I was sure of what I wanted. Being a patient myself now, I understood better what patients needed. Despite my family’s opposition, I joined duty after recovery. And here I am doing what I love most,” she says.

With heads held high

The Government Medical College Hospital in Omandurar Estate is Chennai’s first dedicated COVID-19 facility. D. Revathi, a staff nurse here, has completed three rounds of duty. Every shift begins with taking over patient records. With that done, she must ensure that the wards are clean, then wake up the patients, make their beds, see that breakfast is served on time, medication administered and investigations carried out.

Revathi’s schedule was as rigorous even before the pandemic, but now her family life has taken a beating. Three months ago, she packed off her mother and daughter to their hometown, knowing her work would require her to stay away from them. “When we wear the uniform, we walk with our heads held high. More than us, our family and society see us as warriors in the fight against COVID-19,” she says. For Revathi, empathy is the “special quality of nurses.” When a patient gets a sudden fever or headache, “we must put ourselves in their feet,” she says.

G. Prema rides a scooter from her home to Melma Nagar in Poonamallee each day. Most of her duty hours between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. are spent in the streets and households of this west Chennai suburb from where some COVID-19 positive cases have been reported. Prema is a village health nurse, attached to the Melma Nagar health sub-centre. She begins her day by picking up the list of positive patients from the medical officer. Then, along with the health inspector, she carries out door-to-door visits to check back on the primary and secondary contacts of patients.

A nurse at a hospital in Karad, Maharashtra, hands over a newborn to its mother following her recovery from COVID-19

A nurse at a hospital in Karad, Maharashtra, hands over a newborn to its mother following her recovery from COVID-19   | Photo Credit: PTI

“When we visit the homes of COVID-19 patients, we make arrangements to test for anyone who may have symptoms, and we give extra care to pregnant women,” says Prema. In many places, village health nurses such as Prema are the first point of contact for patients. “We give our phone numbers to the residents, and ask them to call us immediately in case of medical need.”

After her long and exhausting day, when she reaches home, she has to “bathe and sanitise all my belongings. I need to take care to keep my family safe too,” she says. Being on the field has another aspect too. “When all this started, people used to fear that we may be the source of infection as we visited houses of patients. But now things are looking up as awareness improves,” says Prema.

The weariness may be hidden behind their masks, but work for a nurse is ceaseless: be it in hospitals or care centres or on the field. As Revathi says, “This is more than just a job. It’s a way of life for us.”

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Printable version | Mar 6, 2021 4:31:54 AM |

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