Tough lessons: As they take on COVID-19, junior doctors have to fight fear of the future too
“We are in a war and we cannot run away. As professionals, we will continue to do our best.”
HYDERABAD: “Frankly, our imagination never came this close to the reality we have now.”
For 26-year-old Dr Hemanth Kalakuntla, one of the 20 final-year postgraduate students at Hyderabad’s Gandhi General Hospital, life now is a far cry from the fun-filled campus life they experienced till early March. Then they joked about a new disease in China, and the movie-like situation it had caused there. Now, they are fighting this new pandemic every day, with their institute being designated as the nodal centre for treating COVID-19 patients in Telangana on May 1.
Starting the final year of post-graduation, the batch was expecting their last year in medical school to be a mix treating a wide variety of presentations while equipping themselves for the challenges of the future. Now they are doing 36-hours of duty nine or ten times a month in the COVID-19 ward, fighting one disease. Traumatised and sleep-deprived, the young doctors are being tested on a daily basis.
As final-year students, his batch was expected to take the burden of tackling COVID-19 first. Soon, as cases started rising exponentially, the juniors’ batch too was pressed into service. On certain days, there were over 1,000 active cases being treated in the hospital.
“We did not know much about the disease. We had seen such situations in movies and never thought it to be this serious. Frankly, our imagination never came this close to the reality we have now,” Dr Kalakuntla says, who is specialising in general medicine.
But the junior doctors are aware and conscious about the task at hand. Dr Kalakuntla says he and his colleagues see the pandemic as a once in a lifetime opportunity. “We are in a war and we cannot run away. As professionals, we will continue to do our best,” he says, adding how it is a special feeling being amidst a pandemic to experience first hand how the administration functions, how doctors perform, and how people react.
But life is anything but easy, especially tackling the anxiety of the family. Dr Kalakuntla talks about the phone calls from relatives and the murmurs at home, wondering why he should willingly expose himself to such a risk. “It is just out of love. They also know I can’t abstain from my duties,” he says.
The young doctor, like most of his colleagues who go return home after every shift, has devised a standard operating procedure to be followed while entering their houses. “Apart from taking a bath after going home, I wash my clothes, do my dishes, ensure I don’t touch anything, and stay at a distance from everyone. It is an hour’s process and it’s necessary to protect my family,” he explains, reiterating that the family always comes first.
There are personal demons to fight as well. “As cases started rising, the morale of us doctors was going down. Many of us stopped smiling. Some have had their marriages postponed. It was a feeling of doom, that we never felt before. We don’t know how or when this will all end,” says Dr Kalakuntla, who is missing hanging around with this family.
Even as their batch learns everything about SARS-CoV-2, there are genuine fears about how much this education will equip them for the future. “Final year is the stage where we lend all our knowledge gained over nine years of medical school and club it to become ready to go to the people and treat them. At this moment, our brains should be running with the management of different cases, whereas, now we are stuck with one of its kind of a disease that we didn’t know about,” he reasons. The regular academic sessions for these junior doctors have been stalled because of the pandemic.
“We do not have regular classes now. In our final year, we thrive on seeing new cases, finding something interesting, and getting the patient cured. COVID-19 is a single type of disease that affects certain organs and presents itself in a certain way. It has different presentations but it has more respiratory involvement. We usually see a typical presentation in most COVID-19 cases,” he explains, adding that the human body is so complex with so many systems, manifestations, and presentations and this learning is what batch misses the most.
“The joy in examining a case thoroughly in an emergency unit, sharing inputs with colleagues, the end diagnosis, presenting our findings to the professor, the discussions, and the camaraderie, all of it is missing now.”
Stating that his colleagues are perturbed about the future, he says, “After finishing PG, we have to go out and see normal cases of fever, cough, asthma, stroke, etc. You cannot be a COVID-19 specialist for life, right?”
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