When Ajit Turi, 36, lost his job as a package dispatcher at a private clothing store in Kolkata in March, he signed up for a job that few wanted: as cleaning staff in the Covid-19 ward at Beliaghata ID Hospital, one of the first medical facilities to start treating coronavirus patients in West Bengal.
For the past six months, Turi has been working continuously, seven days a week, in eight-hour shifts, cleaning bathrooms inside the ward, throwing out garbage, providing hot water and food to elderly patients and changing their soiled clothes. “People run away when they hear the term ‘coronavirus’, but someone has to do the job. We can’t leave it.”
Turi is one among the countless invisible hospital staff across West Bengal, who have been on the frontlines of the war against coronavirus, just like doctors and nurses, often silent and invisible to the innumerable people with whom they cross paths everyday, and are more susceptible to contracting infections due to the nature of their jobs.
“When I lost my job, I thought my family and I would die of hunger. So I thought that we might as well die of Covid-19,” says Turi. “I took the job after I told my wife that I didn’t have money for food during lockdown. Then I left it to god.”
Turi starts his day by stepping into a full PPE kit, an N-95 mask, a surgical mask on top of that, three layers of gloves, protective eyewear and boots, and gets ready to help doctors and nurses doing whatever jobs they require him to do, in addition to his designated duties. “Every day before entering the Covid ward, I take god’s name. It gets so hot inside the PPE kit that everything is wet when I remove it after my shift.”
The isolation and physical distance from their families that comes with coronavirus is particularly difficult for elderly patients, and housekeeping staff, often categorised as ‘Group D’ staff in India’s hospitals, become indispensable for these patients. “They see how much we do for them. When elderly patients get discharged, they bless us for helping them. We are healthy because of their blessings,” says Turi.
Rahul Hela, 29, who works in the Covid ward along with Turi, has grown up in the environs of Beliaghata ID Hospital and illness doesn’t faze him. Hela’s father was the head sweeper at the hospital for three decades before he died in 2017, and his mother works as a cleaner in the hospital’s CCU.
For cleaning staff in this ward, Dr Yogiraj Ray, one of the hospital’s leading doctors tackling coronavirus, is a source of inspiration and an integral ally who has provided these staff members training on protecting themselves from the virus when carrying out their daily duties. “I get a lot of strength from Dr. Ray. He says that as long as we wear a mask and be careful, we will be fine. Many doctors and nurses are afraid to go close to covid patients, but not him. I have seen it with my own eyes. I learn a lot from him,” says Hela.
Although Hela has only received formal education till class VIII, he spent considerable time working in the HIV and Swine Flu wards of this hospital that specialises in treating infectious diseases. “I have been coming in and out of hospitals since childhood, so I am not really afraid of coronavirus.”
Still, the possibility of infection persists, but Hela understands the importance of his responsibilities. “I feed these patients rice with my own hands and change their soiled diapers. But you see, their families are not here and they only have us,” says Hela. “In times like these, even families tend to run away. Many patients are not medically stable, so we have to do everything for them.”
Like Turi, Hela too has been working non-stop since March. “I know that I have to do it because if I skip a day’s work, the patients won’t get to eat or get help.”
From the time a patient is admitted into the Covid ward to when they are discharged and sent home in an ambulance, staff like Turi and Hela are often the only people the patients get to see on a regular basis. Conversations that these patients have with these staff members provide them with the psychological and emotional support patients don’t even realise they need.
“Sometimes I get embarrassed. Elderly patients will touch my feet to say thank you when they get discharged. They have seen everything that we have done for them. But I just feel proud that I was able to help a patient return home,” explains Hela.
Up north in Siliguri, at one of the largest medical institutes in the region, the North Bengal Medical College, Vijay Mallick, 34, was going about his regular duties as a cleaning and support staff member in the main operating theatre in the institute’s orthopaedic department, when a patient came in requiring an emergency surgery in June.
“Emergency patients weren’t tested for coronavirus back then and we would have to come in close physical contact with these patients and lift them from the bed to the stretcher etc. A few days later, the patient tested positive for Covid,” recalls Mallick. “I was on duty that day and I had changed him into a surgical gown.”
Following the surgery, Mallick forgot about the patient, tending to others, going about his duties, when he learned that the doctor in charge of the surgery had tested positive. “Approximately ten staff members were on duty in that operating theatre. We didn’t have symptoms, but we got tested. A few days later, our supervisor told us that all of us had tested positive.”
Like many of his colleagues working in similar positions at the institute, Mallick lives in the neighbourhood of Kawakhali, just a stone’s throw from the North Bengal Medical College. On the day he tested positive, the institute arranged for Mallick’s transport to the nearby Desun Hospital for treatment, making a brief stop at his home so that he could pick up a few essentials.
“I had to wait outside my home while picking it up and my family started crying,” he recalls. “I told them that because of my patients’ blessings, I would be home in no time. We do so much for them and we have their good wishes.” Leaving his parents, his wife and his six-month old twin daughters in the care of neighbours, Mallick began his treatment, concerned because he has a pre-existing medical condition, diabetes.
To make matters worse for the family, Mallick’s 51-year-old father, who also has diabetes and was working as a cleaner in the same operation theatre that day, also tested positive. “So I was even more afraid. But I tried to find strength, thinking that I have to come back to work,” he says.
Gourab Chatterjee, 34, doesn’t know how he got infected with coronavirus, but he suspects that it may have occurred when he was manning the front desk at Woodlands Hospital in Kolkata, despite wearing a surgical mask, face shield and gloves. Chatterjee, the Deputy Manager of the admissions department at the hospital, found himself at the forefront, assisting patients and their families as they began began coming in large numbers for various kinds of treatment. “We have to deal with so many documents, people on a daily basis,” he says. “I developed a fever on June 25 and tested positive four days later.”
For Chatterjee, the discovery was frightening, but not only because of the impact it would have on him physically. “I broke down and I was severely depressed. My wife was nine months pregnant and I sent her away to her parents’ home. I had seen many staff members get infected and then transfer it to their families and I was afraid for her.”
His wife tested negative and approximately a month later, delivered her baby. “Had my wife tested positive, I don’t know what I would have done.” Chatterjee recalls the strain and worry that he underwent while recovering, afraid for his family’s well being, particularly his wife’s pregnancy, but he was among the more fortunate.
Not only did he recover soon after, he was also able to be by his wife’s side when their first child arrived. “My office colleagues and friends whom I didn’t expect would help, stepped in. Till the test results don’t arrive, the person is in a state of anxiety. I am still afraid of reinfection.”
Days after Mallick was discharged from home quarantine and was given clearance, he was back at work. “People talk about doctors and nurses, but nobody remembers Group D staff,” he says. “When coronavirus started, many didn’t want to come in to work. But we continued working because we try to serve patients like they are our family.”
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