For Sajish, his wife Lini’s last message to him is so precious that he has tucked it carefully under his cell phone cover, where it will remain with him wherever he goes.
On a crumpled piece of paper, 33-year-old Lini wrote to her husband in her dying hours in a mix of Malayalam and English: “Sajish-etta, am almost on the way. I don’t think I would be able to see you. Sorry, please take care of our children. You should take Kunju (elder son) to the Gulf. You shouldn’t be alone like my father. With lots of love, umma.”
On Tuesday, Sajish, who works as an accountant in a small firm in Bahrain, stood stumped outside their modest one-storey home in Chembanoda in Kozhikode district, his face solemn and his mind clearly elsewhere.
Early Monday morning, his wife Lini PN, who worked as a daily-wage nurse at the government taluk hospital in Perambra, 38 kilometres from Kozhikode, passed away after coming in direct contact with Mohammad Sabith, believed to be the first victim of the Nipah virus outbreak in northern Kerala. Sabith was treated for a while at the taluk hospital, where Lini worked, before he succumbed to the infection earlier this month. By Tuesday, the number of deaths related to the virus, suspected to be carried by fruit bats, had touched 10, sparking panic in the region.
“She was very sad to hear about his death because she had taken complete care of him. She did more than what a duty nurse usually does for a patient. But even at that time, she did not know that he had a viral infection,” Sajish said.
A couple of days after Sabith died, Lini started experiencing symptoms of fever and was first admitted to a private hospital in Kozhikode before she was shifted to the Medical College in the city. “Lini herself said she should be admitted to the isolation ward of the hospital as if she had a premonition that it could be a viral infection. She seemed fine till Sunday because she was taking medicines by herself and even recognised everyone who came to visit,” recalled her cousin brother, Anil.
“She was so fond of nursing. She liked taking care of people so much that four months after she delivered our younger boy, she was back at the hospital,” Sajish’s words trailed off.
Just then, Lini’s mother, wearing a mask, runs outside the house in the direction of the stream nearby, before she is chased and forcibly brought back by the family members. She is seen kicking and biting people’s hands in an effort to be released.
“She suffers from epilepsy. A few years ago, she lost her husband and now her daughter. Entha cheyya (What to do!),” Sajish rues.
While his mother-in-law is clearly struggling to come to terms with the death of her daughter, it’s his two young sons, Rithul (5) and Siddharth (2) who are not aware of the gravity of the tragedy that has befallen this family. “I told my elder son that she is not coming back and that I’m all he has. He said okay, but…I am not sure he understood what I meant,” says Sajith. His younger son, meanwhile, keeps asking for his mother, especially at nights. “I don’t know what to say.”
Some 20 kilometres away, the government taluk hospital, where Lini worked, lies almost empty, its patients all having asked to be discharged, scared that they would somehow catch the virus. A week ago, close to hundred patients had been admitted there, but now the number has dwindled down to just two.
Shantha, a staff nurse at the hospital dressed in a protection suit complete with gloves and a mask, says it’s necessary to act brave in such terrifying circumstances. “Pedi undu pakshe entha cheyya. Dhairyam sambharichu vannu. Vere nivrithi illalo (We are scared but what do we do. We are trying to be brave. There’s no other option),” she says.
When asked about Lini, Shantha turns emotional. “We have done so many night shifts together…she was such a good nurse. She took great care of people,” she murmured, as her eyes welled up and turned red.