Till 2 in night and sometimes even beyond that, Shaminder Kaur Dhillon (38), a counselling psychologist at Kapurthala Civil Hospital, keeps busy on phone in a separate room at her home while her 5-year old son sleeps in his father’s arms in another.
Exchanging smileys and jokes on WhatsApp, discussing Candy Crush to PUBG, movies and food, family issues and friends, suggesting ways to tackle sleep disorders and sudden anxiety attacks— she slowly and steadily opens up with her patients, and becomes their family when they need it the most.
Her patients are either coronavirus positives living in isolation or suspected ones in home-quarantine. Alone, they look for support. And someone that they can call any time, pushing Dhillon to be available for them 24×7.
Like Dhillon, hundreds of counselling physiologists, counsellors and psychiatric social workers across Punjab are going out of their way to do a job that is the most vital for a coronavirus patient’s recovery – to keep the virus out of their minds and keep them mentally healthy.
The first two positive patients that Dhillon counselled are now cured but road to their recovery wasn’t an easy one.
One was a 22-year old physiotherapy student from Lovely Professional University (LPU) who was “understanding but anxious at times due to some symptoms she would get” and the other a 17-year-old boy who was asymptomatic and would “rage in anger, and bang doors of isolation ward with sudden urge to go out”. The teenager was also facing the stigma that had come to be associated with Tablighi Jamaat. However, one thing stood common — both had families in Maharashtra and Dhillon had to ensure that she filled in that gap.
“It took me some days to become ‘didi’ (elder sister) for them from ‘Ma’am or Doctor Ji’. It was only then that they started opening up and sharing everything about their families and friends with me. They would confide in me and would feel comfortable in talking to me even at 2 in night. Sometimes, when I would wake up in the morning, I would have messages from them that they weren’t able to sleep properly so I started talking to them on WhatsApp till late night, share music with them, talk about issues that were disturbing them,” says Dhillon. With shortage of PPE kits, she covers herself in three layers of her own clothes, then a surgical gown, a polythene cover on her shoes and a face shield— whenever she went to isolation ward to counsel them face to face.
And with the job blurring the on-duty and off-duty boundaries, her personal life changed too but she found a good support in her husband. “Earlier my job was 9 am to 3 pm, sitting in my chamber but since coronavirus outbreak, it is now round the clock. My son is five and he complains that I am always into my phone and does not play with him. But my husband tries to keep him busy in other room. When I return from hospital, I take bath and avoid hugging or kissing my son. He even complains that I play ‘paper, scissors, stone’ game with my patients on video call but not him,” she laughs.
Though counsellors have been directed to do only tele-counselling, there are challenges on the ground such as the one that Dhillon faces. “The 17-year old didn’t have a mobile phone. He had been living with his uncle in a mosque at Kapurthala. He would feel lonely and bang doors of isolation ward in anger at night when he couldn’t sleep. He would feel trapped. It was for first time he had left his home with some other youths. His family is in Maharashtra and wanted him to learn Quran so he left studies midway. He would be so fearful at night, unaware of what was happening around him. The only way to calm him down was face-to-face chat,” says Dhillon, who holds BSc in nursing and advance diploma in health social care. It was only after a week in isolation that he was provided a phone.
“The LPU woman, a physiotherapy student, was mature and understanding. She was confident and would tell me ‘mujhe kuch nahi hua, I am okay’, but the boy was fearful and anxious. He was asymptomatic and would ask why was he kept in isolation when he was not ill,” adds Dhillon.
After the 17-year-old recovered, Dhillon says that she also spoke to his family in Maharashtra. “He was so happy that he asked his parents to get him his own phone. He loved playing PUBG,” she said.
Dhillon said that counsellors have to adjust their own routine and timings according to that of the patients’. “With the LPU woman, I was in touch 24×7 because she had a smartphone and would connect over WhatsApp and video calls. But the boy used to go to bed early and rise early for namaaz. Our routines depend on that of patients’,” she says.
“My kid has now learnt that when I return home he has to stay away from me,” said Dhillon, who is currently handling at least 50 home quarantined patients.
Every patient undergoes a Mental Status Examination before counselling begins, to understand the issues they face. It includes assessment of their appearance and behaviour, mood, risk, speech, thought process, perception, insight etc. For instance ‘risk’ includes tendency of patient for ‘self-harm or suicide’.
Manpreet Singh, counsellor, Civil Hospital, Kapurthala, says, “Any disease first attacks the mind and then body. We face questions from patients such as how fatal coronavirus is, why they are quarantined when there are no symptoms, if people will accept them back in society or not? Such is the fear that a patient who had anxiety wanted to kill himself. He said that he gave his phone charger to someone who is now infected. So he said he will kill himself before he also gets infected so that his family is safe. We have to deal with all this very empathetically.”
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