Five days before her due date, Sukanya Gawda, contracted the coronavirus. “I was convinced that the virus would kill me… I had prepared my eldest daughter to look after the family if I did not return from hospital…,” she recalls. On May 12, the 32-year-old delivered a healthy boy, and named him ‘Jeevan’, the one who gave her new life.
All she now wants to do is sell her room at the Mumbai chawl and return to her native village in Mandya, Karnataka with her husband Ravi and three children. “When I got Covid, we were alone Mumbai, our family was in the village. Such experiences make you realise that struggling in a big city for a little more money is not worth it,” she says, adding that she wants to educate her daughters “and perhaps one could become a doctor”. “I saw how hard nurses and doctors work, how they held my hand while I was in labour…”
Lack of information and over-crowded maternity wards at government hospitals made the pandemic tougher for thousands of pregnant women like Sukanya who did not have the means to get private care. As Mumbai witnessed a surge in cases, and the stigma around the disease grew, the Gawdas decided not to disclose Sukanya’s Covid-positive status to residents of their slum in the western suburb of Marol.
In March, also missed her seventh month sonography in March due to the lockdown.
In May, as per government norms all maternity homes were asking for a Covid test of the mother before delivering the child. An asymptomatic Gawda tested positive on May 7. “The doctor in Rainbow Hospital said only Nair Hospital was delivering children of Covid-positive women. I came back home and cried, I thought I will die. I had seen plenty of news on TV which said that no medicine works on this virus and the family could not even see dead people in hospital,” she says.
“She kept saying leave me by the roadside and let me die here,” says her husband Ravi. On May 8, at 6 am, he took out his autorickshaw and drove the entire family to Nair Hospital in in his autorickshaw, 23 km away. At one barricade, the policemen stepped aside and let the family go Ravi told them his wife has Covid.
Apart from Sukanya, no one in the family had any symptom and never got tested.
When they reached Nair Hospital, doctors told us to go to the local maternity hospital in our Ward, says Ravi. “We then drove to Wadia Maternity Hospital (3 km away), but again we were turned away from the main gate. Next, we went to KEM hospital, but the maternity ward was overcrowded and there was no bed. The doctor at KEM hospital asked us to return to Nair Hospital. When we reached Nair Hospital, Sukanya started crying… They agreed to admit her after two hours,” says Ravi.
Soon, Sukanya bid farewell to her family, and called her sister and uncle in Karnataka to look after her two daughters if she does not survive. However, once she got to the ward she was surprised to see Covid-positive pregnant women sitting casually, having conversations. “Nobody was gasping, nobody was dying. Two women even got discharged that day… One woman explained to me that most women had no symptoms and no visible effect on their pregnancies,” she recalls.
Since March, municipal corporation run Nair Hospital has admitted 1,200 Covid-positive pregnant women and delivered 767 babies free of cost. “There was no data on how the virus affects pregnant women with Covid. It was a new experience. Our challenge was to keep our staff and newborn babies safe,” says Dr Ganesh Shinde, head of the hospital’s gynaecology department.
Dr Niraj Mahajan, in-charge of Covid maternity at Nair Hospital says they made special arrangements for such pregnancies, from setting up a different ward and operation theatre to making sure each newborn is breastfed by mothers only after they have masks on and have sanitised themselves. “Vertical transmission from mother to foetus was rare, and most babies were born Covid-free,” he says.
On May 12, Sukanya’s labour pains began, and she was wheeled in for a caesarean procedure. Nurses held her hand as a doctor gave her anaesthesia. When she woke up in the afternoon a nurse told her she had delivered a healthy boy. When she was handed over the child for breastfeeding, she promptly sanitised her hands. For the next fortnight, she didn’t take off her mask.
When she returned home on May 22, she says she decided two things: “We stopped all TV news channels, it was the main source of panic for us. The media should have shown some restraint in its reporting. I also didn’t go out of the house with the baby for four months. No outsider was allowed to enter our house, not even neighbours.”
As she prepares to step into the new year, with a healthy family, Sukanya says the panic over the virus in the early days was unnecessary. “Ye samay kabhi kisi ko nahi dekhna chahiye (Nobody should witness what we did)… But we learnt what is important to us, family over money,” says Sukanya, as Jeevan plays in the arms of her elder daughter.
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