Stealing a few moments for herself, she glances out of her fifth floor window for a split second before rushing back to the endless stack of paperwork on her desk. The voices of doctors and the shrill, non-stop ringing of her cell phone and landline, which she had relegated to the back of her mind, are now hard to ignore. The only moment of solace in her current daily routine now, is this peek through her office window. Leading an army of doctors and nurses — most of whom are women — at the frontline of the war against COVID-19 in Haryana’s Panchkula, is Chief Medical Officer (CMO) Dr Jasjeet Kaur.
It has been more than 20 days since Dr Jasjeet and her team started working together at Panchkula Civil Hospital to combat the pandemic. “It is a very welcome coincidence that almost 80 per cent of our very dedicated and motivated staff happens to be women…especially in a state like Haryana…It certainly makes things easier in the hospital as we all laugh through our adversities,” says Dr Jasjeet, smiling.
Their working hours have increased three-fold — what was once an eight-hour shift has become a 24-hour loop. “Basically, it’s like you are continuing from the previous night. It’s almost midnight as you wrap up work and it begins all over again by 6 am,” she adds.
They reach the civil hospital before 9 am, meet and chalk out strategies for the day. The chaos is palpable at the hospital, the main facility for patients coming from Panchkula. Holding fort with Dr Jasjeet are Deputy Civil Surgeon Dr Saroj Aggarwal and Principle Medical Officer Dr Sarita Yadav.
“Being a woman, you bring things to the table a man cannot. Women are empathetic and considerate. Just the other day, she (Jasjeet) called us all in, only to ask us about our health and to tell us to talk to her about anything that might be disturbing us. Women are both assertive and polite at the same time,” says Dr Saroj.
Dr Saroj has been tasked with handling coordination with almost 12 primary and community health care centres of the district, taking care of 12 shelter homes for migrant labourers, coordinating quarantine facilities along with keeping in regular touch with private hospitals for their preparedness when the time of their need comes. Her morning walk, a daily habit she once rarely missed, is now the last thing on her mind.
“I am almost always jolted out of my sleep around 4 am. I start making lists of what is to be accomplished in the day. It is like we are falling short of time these days,” says Dr Saroj, sifting through a list of retired doctors who have enrolled themselves for voluntary service.
She receives a phone call from the management of a mosque, with a proposal to turn the mosque into a shelter home for those who have returned from the Tablighi Jamaat. “All of us have suddenly become the best multi-taskers,” she says. Her phone, which would otherwise ping only with messages from her children, now keeps buzzing all day.
Squeezing out five minutes of her time after attending two back-to-back video conferences, Dr Sarita Yadav talks about how the pandemic changed her most defining habit. “I was a person of timetables. I needed everything done in a certain way and that was it. But our recent schedules remain most flexible as I move from field to office and take rounds of the hospital. Emergencies often land me back here in late hours,” she says, smiling.
Calling the junior staff her heroes, Dr Saroj says, “They have done the most in such times. We are working on a war footing and they are leading from the front.”
Dr Jasjeet and Dr Sarita were only recently transferred to their current posts. While Dr Jasjeet, an MD in Microbiology, has almost 20 years of experience, Dr Sarita has been working across the state for almost 27 years.
Calling it a steep learning curve, both insist that the experience they have is nothing compared to what they have learned in the past 20 days.
“This is the biggest challenge of my professional life. I have a wonderful team working day in and out. Responsibility as a team leader is quite challenging,” says Dr Jasjeet.
The job, she stresses, is not only challenging professionally, but also personally.
“These women are exposing themselves to people who could be positive. They have to go back and take care of their families as well. It is tough. Some have already taken measures to self-isolate at home however possible, doing whatever they can think of to save their children. They are not backing off. It is their determination that is making us come out successful,” says Dr Jasjeet. A nurse at the hospital who suspected she had come in contact with the active case has isolated herself at her own home, away from her aging in-laws and children. While she tested positive, all in her family have tested negative.
Dr Shalu Garg, who was recently lifted by the Director General of Health office and now works as a state officer with vast experience in public health, does not even find time to play with her 11-year-old son. “He gets very moody, asks me to quit my job, but I can’t really do that. I have to fight for our country,” she says. With old in-laws and a young son at home, both she and her husband, doctors at the same hospital, have made sure to isolate themselves and maintain distance with the family. “It gets very frustrating, my son does not understand all this,” she says.
Dr Shalu was one of the main doctors to work on-ground in containing the slum outbreak. “It was very difficult. People would hardly listen to us. Some even threatened to put us in the hospital if we went near them. There is always a lot of resistance from less literate people. They do not understand what is going on and don’t take it seriously,” she says. To help the less educated be more aware, Dr Shalu has raised awareness through concentrated door-to-door awareness programmes. Now, people from slums too are seen covering their mouths at all times.
Panchkula has performed better than its neighbouring UT Chandigarh and Mohali in curbing the spread of the virus. It has had only two cases, compared to the daily rise in cases in neighbouring cities. Panchkula’s first case — a person who came in contact with an infected person from Chandigarh, is a slum dweller. Quick action was taken to cordon off the congested area where this patient lived, with a population of more than 9,000 under cluster quarantine.
The day goes by quikcly as Dr Jasjeet juggles her hectic schedule. By the time she is done coordinating with administration and municipal corporation to procurement of food, medical equipment, discussing raised prices and short supply of material to tracing contacts of suspected and positive cases, making lists to signing heaps of paperwork that goes through the office, preparing for a larger outbreak and listening to the grievances of staff about deputations to finally head back home, the sun is about to come out again.
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