CHANDIGARH — ’I gave your message to her, told her how much you love her. I told her to consider me as your proxy for the time, told her to remember all good things, I told her once she is better, I will visit her in Italy and will have a good time. I sat with her holding her hand for an hour. She smiled and promised to help me in healing her. My whole team is praying for her recovery.’
This is one among the numerous WhatsApp messages that Sushila Kataria, an internal medicine specialist at Medanta Hospital, Gurugram, sends every day. The messages are to Elena, the daughter of an Italian woman who, along with 13 others from her country, are being treated for COVID-19 by Kataria and her team.
The group of tourists were among India’s first cases of the virus, which has infected more than 200,000 people across the world. India has now reported more than 170 cases, and four people have died so far.
Healthcare workers around the world have been at the forefront of fighting the disease, which has no vaccine yet.
Every day, 42-year-old Kataria fights a language barrier as well as her patients’ fears and anguish in order to try and save their lives.
Except for one person who was the tour guide, all her patients are above 68 years and in the high-risk category. The doctor’s worst fear at times is that some of these patients may not survive and be united with their families back in Italy.
“Sometimes I feel that I am giving them false hope by saying they will soon be united with their family. I know some of them are losing the battle of life. As a doctor, I cannot let them give up hope and their faith in me,” said Kataria over the phone.
Her patients, said the doctor, “keep apologising to me everyday for bringing the deadly virus to India”. They had been travelling across Rajasthan, Agra and parts of Delhi, before being put under isolation.
How did they first react to the fact that they had COVID-19? “It was a big shock to them to be detected with a deadly virus load on a foreign land and not being able to return to their country due to the suspension of flights between the two countries. Also, the situation in Italy is worse than India and they may not be able to take any more viral load,” said Dr. Kataria, who studied at Pandit Bhagwat Dayal Sharma Post Graduate Institute of Medical Sciences, Rohtak, Haryana.
The patients, through the Italian Embassy in India, have asked their travel insurer to bear the medical expenses in India.
The personal effect
Did Kataria feel any hesitation to take up the cases? “Who else would have done it? It was easy for me to have delegated the job to someone else but then I had to lead it by example. I have to tell them that even though the virus is highly infectious, we can control it through proper care,” said the doctor, who has a dedicated team of over a dozen people taking care of the patients.
It wasn’t, however, an easy decision to make, as the doctor would need to take precautions even around her immediate family.
“My husband is suffering from inflammatory arthritis and the medication used for this makes him more vulnerable to severe infection. So we had to send him to our farmhouse. Also, my son was appearing for the Class X board exams and my daughter was highly apprehensive about my safety and the long-term consequences,” said Kataria.
It has been 15 days since she met her husband or entered her children’s room.
She is also extra cautious when she returns home from the hospital. “I avoid touching the door knobs, the buttons in the lift and also any light switches. Also, I ensure that while talking, I should maintain a distance of at least two metres.”
What is the treatment like?
To prepare for the patients, the hospital had to first set up an isolation centre. Though it took a day or two to get the entire infrastructure ready, Kataria only had a couple of hours to set up the unit including planning its entry and exit points, changing areas, dining area, installation and testing of the life-saving equipment. While the hospital was informed around 1 pm that the patients from the ITPB isolation centre would be shifted under their care, they arrived at 6 pm.
One of her patients, said the doctor, is on the ventilator, while two are on critical care therapy with antiviral medication and high oxygen support. The remaining eleven are recovering fast and are getting back to their normal routines.
She said that the critical patients were currently being given immunity interleukin-6 inhibitors, useful in immune-driven systemic inflammation, while the others were put on vitamin supplements and given general supportive care.
One of her patients is a marathon runner, while another makes sure he completes his exercise routine in the morning. They have also taught the doctor some Italian.
“Language still is a big barrier between us. We normally communicate through Google Translate. While two of them know English, I cannot ask them to help every time as they too get tired fast. While these patients behave normally, they do get agitated sometimes due to isolation,” said Kataria, adding that the patients learnt to pronounce her name as Sushi + Leela (Sushila). She is also proud to have learnt basic phrases such as “Come Stai (How are you), Grazie (Thank You) and Ciao (Hi).
Unlike other doctors, Kataria’s only contact with the patients is through voice as they cannot see her face or her body through the thick hazmat suit. She has to touch and hold their hands often to strengthen the bond they have formed with each other.
“They sometimes lose hope. After every test, they repeatedly ask me the results. As they are still positive, they do get agitated sometimes,” said Kataria. The doctor has formed a WhatsApp group with the patients and their family members and keeps posting hilarious posts to cheer them up.
The Internet is currently a lifeline for them. Even a small disruption in the network agitates them, said Kataria. They want to be connected to their family members all the time in the hope of being back with them soon.
Meanwhile, Kataria has been showered with praises and applause by her colleagues and their families, who keep sending her small gifts, including a flask full of turmeric milk every day, as a token of respect and love.