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These Covid warriors make the toughest of all calls — to inform the families of those who died

There are 12 medical officers at the Dahisar centre, and several more across the six such jumbo centres that cater to around 500-1,000 patients each in Mumbai.

Written by Tabassum Barnagarwala | Mumbai |
Updated: April 30, 2021 6:37:44 pm
Dr Shubhangi Daore (seated) in the command room of the Covid Jumbo Centre in Dahisar, Mumbai. (Express photo by Tabassum Barnagarwala)

“MA’AM, I beg you to arrange for an ambulance. We have been waiting since morning to take the body,” a man tells her. It’s late into her 8 am-3 pm shift, and she responds: “Give me 10 minutes, an ambulance is returning from the crematorium.” Then, as she walks away from the scene, her eyes filling up, she confides: “These deaths come to me in my dreams.”

When Dr Shubhangi Daore completed her degree in dental surgery two years ago, she imagined a happy, relaxed, and comfortable life. But for the last eight months, the 25-year-old has been handling the job that everyone shies away from: making that dreaded call to the families of Covid patients who have died.

It’s not just that.

Inside a makeshift command room of the Covid Jumbo Centre in Mumbai’s Dahisar, she arranges video calls for patients through tabs distributed in wards, and organises referrals in other facilities. She consoles family members who come for the final glimpse and arranges ambulances to take the bodies.

And the most difficult, she says, of all tasks: holding on as the voice at the other end of the phone breaks down.

There are 11 other medical officers like Daore at the Dahisar centre, and several more across the six such jumbo centres that cater to around 500-1,000 patients each in Mumbai. At Dahisar alone, each officer calls the families of around 150-200 patients every day to provide medical updates.

Officials at these centres say the medical officers act as a “communication bridge” between patients and families. “Most of them are young, and there are several with degrees in ayurveda or homeopathy. The job can be emotionally challenging, especially since many of those deputed are not professionally trained for such a task,” says a senior official.

Daore says she suffered a breakdown just three days ago. “I could not stop crying, and even considered quitting. We somehow sailed through the first wave, but the second wave has taken away any sense of satisfaction that we had until February,” she says.

“In hospitals, a ward in-charge or staff nurse usually calls up families to inform them. In jumbo centres, medical officers are tasked with informing families. These medical officers also coordinate with war rooms and have all the case details of each patient,” says Dr Abhay Naik, deputy dean at the Mulund jumbo centre.

Dr Disha Saha (28), a homeopathic doctor who has been working at the Mulund centre for nine months, tries not to break down as she conveys the news of a death. “I call them to the centre and inform them in person. For me, the most difficult part is informing families about a young patient’s death, and there are many these days,” she says.

“One ICU patient who died had a one-year-old baby. How do I break this news to the family? We are not trained to do this,” she says.

On Wednesday, cries of “aai (mother)” filled the compound as two daughters saw their mother’s body wrapped in plastic. Daore wept nearby. There had been 11 deaths the previous night. “If the patient dies, we leave everything else and make that call. I give them time, stay on the call. There is silence for minutes, then I explain the paperwork required. It hurts me every time,” she says.

Earlier, as the first wave ebbed, Daore would see a patient recover, forge a bond with the family and cherish the satisfaction that comes with a successful recovery. “Now all I see are deaths within a few hours of admission and inconsolable families. Where is the satisfaction?” she asks.

Last week, a couple was admitted together, but the husband died within hours. “The family requested us not to inform the wife. Until she was discharged, I couldn’t tell her. She did not get a chance to see him, say goodbye,” she says.

“Last week, I had to inform two daughters about their mother’s death. We all cried on the phone together,” she says.

Then, there’s the wait. “The parents of a young man, who is in the ICU, died in the centre within three days of each other. If I inform him, he will lose the courage to battle the infection. I am waiting for him to recover,” Daore says.

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