A day in a Kolkata Covid-19 ward


Dadu, Dadu…Get up Dadu. Eat something. Take your medicines. Drink a glass of water. Wake up Dadu. Oh Dadu…”

‘Dadu’ means grandfather in Bengali. When she utters the word, with deep sweetness and warmth, and when she repeats it again and again, cajoling the patient to wake up, it resurrects a stream of childhood memories and a deep sense of human warmth for the highly critical Covid patients at different stages of illness and recovery at the specialized Beleghata Infectious Diseases (ID) Hospital in Kolkata.

It is also called the Beleghata ID Covid Hospital, because, after the pandemic, it has been turned into a specialized Covid hospital. Run by the state government, its reputation has soared extremely high in a short span of time for specialized treatment of Covid patients. In the last ten years, under the current government of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, the Belaghata ID Hospital, the specialized Bangur Hospital in south Kolkata and other hospitals, have been upgraded considerably and become a good example of some of the finest health care available in the public sector anywhere in the country.

In one of its wards during the peak of the second surge, with two huge dormitories housing several patients, the young nurse is trying her best. “Dadu, Dadu… wake up, eat something,” she says, “take your medicine.”

But, the old man refuses to listen to her pleas. He has been in this state for six days at least. Except for a piece of white cloth and diapers around his thighs, he is bare-bodied. In his state of unconsciousness, he jerks off the oxygen mask, even as one nurse after another come by and fix it. There are drips on his arms. He has not eaten for long it seems.

A dark, big and strong man, with powerful hands and muscles, very tall, he screams in a high pitched and hoarse voice every now and then. It’s a scream of great angst, as if coming from deep suffering. It shakes the Covid ward, this sound of human anguish.

When he wakes up after six days, he looks around, refuses to talk, is subdued, shy and silent, and not quiet there in his mind.  He instantly throws away the oxygen mask, and lifts the barriers on the bed physically, with great strength, even while the astounded patients tell him not to. He wants to go to the toilet. He doesn’t seem to register what other patients or nurses are telling him. Clearly, he is not mentally stable.

When the doctors come, after a lot of cajoling, he utters his name, much too softly. Where does he live? “Raastar dhaare,” he says, literally ‘on the street’. The doctors have to press their ears near his lips. He is hardly audible.

COVID Response Watch LogoHe is a homeless man with no address who lives on the street, somewhere in Kolkata. He is probably a worker, a loader, a man who lifts heavy weights, or has done hard labour all his life. He listens to the nurse now, puts on his oxygen mask, eats his food, and remains as silent as ever. All the patients treat him with respect, they try to help him, or politely appeal to him to wear his oxygen mask. Some get him water, fix his bed, re-assure him. He looks at them with gratitude, but in total silence. Until he drifts again, back to his long spell of semi-consciousness, accompanied by those screams every now and then.

Across his bed is a professor of chemistry. His mother and father died last week — of Covid. His sister, also an academic, is also suffering with Covid. His face reflects deep sadness. He is calm and stoic. He is mourning.

He loves his cough syrup, till the time other patients put a stop to it, because he is coughing all through the night. The cough syrup gives him a quick siesta and perhaps mental relief at odd hours of the day. He is amiable and soft-spoken, but his oxygen levels are not normalizing.  He and some other patients are not able to sleep in the night; they are breathless, they are coughing endlessly, some have high blood pressure, others have co-morbidities like diabetes.

After a few days, the professor suddenly reaches across to me, a journalist. He speaks haltingly about the tragedy in his family. How he is now trapped by Covid, like his sister. And, yet, he has to cope with this intense tragedy.

“Do you read detective fiction,” the professor asks, suddenly. “Yes,” says the journalist. “I love them. Especially Sherlock Holmes, Satyajit Ray’s Feluda, PD James and Hanning Mankel. Have your read them.” He says, “Have you read the railway detective stories situated in 19th century in England by Keith Miles under the pseudonym Edward Marston. Incredible.? Have you read The Last Train: A Tokyo Mystery by Michael Pronko, located in Japan. Can I email it to you?”

The professor is like all the others here, patients who are struggling with their own critical illness, abject physical weakness, personal and family tragedies, financial crisis, unemployment, fear of the future. Yet, while the virus has ravaged the body, the human spirit is still going strong. And the hospital, somehow, with its all-encompassing health care and humane treatment, gives all of them a sense of courage, reassurance and optimism. No one is insecure or paranoid, there is no fear of death lurking in the air – they know they are in safe hands.

And everyone is forever reaching out, the patients, helping each other, fixing the oxygen meter, sharing water and fruits, pepping up each other with laughter, discussing politics, cinema, elections, advising each other to go it slow, walk one step at a time and breathe deeply when you go to the bathroom, drink a lot of water, have another cup of tea, sharing biscuits, some extra milk, a story here, a story there. There are others who are cleaning the bathroom and asking others to keep it clean.

A patient walks fast, as if he is ‘normal’ now, returning from the toilet; so, another patient quickly warns him: “Slow. Walk slow.”

A worker in the Calcutta Muncipal Corporation, also a patient, likes only Hindi songs from Bollywood of the 1970s. He plays them loud and refuses to lower the volume. Another patient is watching a Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen classic on his mobile, so happy with the movie that he shouts out aloud – “Oh, I can watch this movie a million times!”

A 94-year old patient is as strong as he can be and insists on walking alone with his stick to the toilet. And, yet, a 70-year-old patient, his neighbour, volunteers to walk with him and wait. He can’t eat solid food, so his neighbour organizes milk, bread and boiled eggs for him. His oxygen mask slips off and he does not really care. So, the nurse scolds him, “Dadu, wear your mask. Now.”

There is a man who runs a small tea shop – his little business has been down for months.
There is a retired school teacher ailing for weeks. There are patients who have recovered and don’t need oxygen, but they are still not fully fit, and the doctors are not giving them a discharge slip.

The sanitation staff keep the place spic and span. They wipe the floors several times, clean the bedpans, help the patients with diapers, collect the garbage, and not once can you hear a grumble. They do their work with remarkable efficiency. Other hospital workers arrive with tea and biscuits twice, and three meals a day: bread, eggs, bananas, apples, fish, rich, chapattis, curd. The meals are delicious and wholesome.

Indeed, these workers too are ‘Frontline Corona Warriors’ who are risking their lives, like the doctors and nurses, day after day – with a smile on their lips. Many patients are now friends with the workers, sharing chit-chats, joking, asking for extra tea and biscuits.

A thin, young man tells another patient not to throw stuff on the ground. Keep the place clean, he tells him. The patient doesn’t mind. “Yes, you are right.”

The young man keeps quiet for days. “What do you do? I ask. He is reluctant. “I am a poor man,” he says. “There has been no earning since the lockdown.”

He runs a small pressure cooker servicing shop, which is shut. He is from Purulia and remembers his childhood of utter poverty and backwardness all around. “The adivasis had to walk miles to fetch one mud tumbler of water. Despite the forests around, the area is parched for long spells. Now, this government has changed all that – there is piped water, roads, public transport, schools, hostels for girls. I still remember the flutes played by the adivasis when I was a child. I can never forget their lilting melody!”

When he was discharged, hail and hearty, he did not have even one rupee in his pocket. But he was a happy man. A neighbour had volunteered to pick him up, though the hospital would provide a free ambulance for patients to drop them home after they were discharged.

The virus is terrible – it ravages the lungs first, and then the organs. Some patients have recovered, literally from the edge. It took a patient 27 days in the hospital to fully recover –but the doctors were adamant that he will only be discharged after he is totally fit.

“When I came here I was like a curled-up banana—totally unconscious, my body ravaged. They gave me life-saving medicines, including highly expensive drugs, they took care of me day and night, they saved me,” said a patient.

“Gods and goddesses are not in the temple, mosque or church. They are here. Look at the manner they are risking their own lives to save us,” said another patient.

All the patients are on oxygen – which runs 24 hours. There has never been a moment of crisis in terms of oxygen supply, or 24 hours medical and health care (and food/drinking water), including the supply of expensive and inaccessible drugs, even during the peak of the second surge with an overwhelming rush of patients.

The nurses are mostly young, equipped with their PPE and masks, which is suffocating and hot, as one nurse said, working 24 hours non-stop in daily shifts, stretched to their limits, with total dedication and commitment, tired and weary, but with not one word ever spoken in anger, irritation and despair. They would take care of each patient with meticulous detail and diligence, giving them medicines three or four times a day, checking oxygen levels, pulse rates, ECG etc, monitoring the most critical patients with special care, while reassuring them again and again, fixing their blankets, their masks, their oxygen machines.

Indeed, they would feed some patients with their own hands, or make them eat food with such warmth and persuasion, that the entire ward felt a wave of gratitude for their relentless and unconditional dedication. The nurses would be up all night in their cabin, and with the crack of dawn the nurses in a new shift would arrive –bringing cheer and hope in the ward of Covid patients. One day a nurse went from bed to bed with an injection, so, some elderly patients said, “Dhonyobad.” (Thank you.) “Don’t say Dhonyobad,” she said. “Instead, give me Aashirwaad. (Blessings)”

The doctors, mostly young, would come on the dot, move from bed to bed with their case histories, take extra care of critical patients and would be always calm, responsive, accessible and reassuring. All queries and doubts were answered. Not one patient would be discharged without the person being totally cured. Every patient had his oxygen levels, blood pressure and pulse measured several times in the day.

One patient was unruly, rude and refused to cooperate, not taking medicines given by the nurses, refusing to wear the oxygen mask, creating a ruckus, and wanting to go home immediately. The young doctors would appeal to him with patience and politeness, explaining to him the danger of leaving the hospital, and how grossly expensive it will be for him to be treated in a private hospital or at home with oxygen cylinders and expensive medicines.  He would be adamant, but the young doctors would hold his hand and appeal to his good sense – “Stay back, please!” And he did, finally, stay back.

Amidst the infinite shadow of distress, dying and death, surrounded by the deadly infectious disease and Covid patients 24 hours, these ‘Frontline Corona Warriors’ – mostly young doctors and nurses, stretched to their professional, physical and emotional limits, many of them away from the comfort of their families and homes for weeks, risked their lives every day and every moment, without a moment of hesitation or doubt. They were truly the great harbingers of hope in a totally hopeless situation – the stoic symbols of life against death, at the Beleghata ID hospital in Kolkata. This journalist saw them upfront for days in a Covid ward as a patient in early May.

Indeed, there is this unimaginable humanism, compassion, warmth and care, combined with amazing dedication, commitment to their occupation, and professional efficiency, which marked the highly organized and streamlined health care system at the sprawling Beleghata ID Hospital, with its totally free medical and health care. It has an inbuilt, inherent and ingrained mechanism which not only treats all patients with absolute equality and dignity but is an incredible example of authentic health care for ordinary people.  It is something rare and precious in a country like India – the synthesis of professional brilliance and specialization, and amazing compassion and humanity.

This was yet again best exemplified when a young doctor and nurse came for inspection at around midnight. They saw the homeless man, without a mask, sleeping. He had not touched his food. So, the nurse went up to him, and said, “Dadu, Dadu, wake up. Eat your food. You have not taken your medicines.”

And the young doctor, repeated, slowly massaging the old man’s head with his fingers, “Dadu, Dadu, get up, eat, take your medicines.”

Amit Sengupta is Executive Editor, Hardnews and a columnist, currently based in Kolkata


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