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It is 6 am on a mundane Friday and staff brother Kamlesh Parmar has a free hour before he begins his 12-hour shift on the isolated floor of Vadodara’s Sir Sayaji General (SSG), Government Medical College Hospital.
The 52-year-old award-winning nurse has already monitored and updated the latest report on the charts of his patients. Kamlesh’s Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is neatly placed next to the charts. And finally, he is mentally combat-ready to face yet another harrowing day of the global pandemic, COVID-19.
“My only job today is to provide the best care to my coronavirus-infected patients and assure them that this too shall pass. It is a beautiful day to save lives,” Kamlesh, an ever-smiling and high-spirited nurse tells The Better India (TBI).
For the last 20 odd years, Kamlesh, who is a disaster nursing specialist, follows the same principle – to serve as if it’s his first or last day as a nurse. For him, past and future cease to exist every time he is around a patient.
Kamlesh has lost the count of the number of patients he has served so far, “A thousand, perhaps? However, I approach every patient as if it’s my first. This way, I pay absolute attention and ensure no room for errors.”
Whether it is working in the neck-deep floods of Surat, the devastating earthquake of Kutch or the ongoing pandemic, Kamlesh does everything in his capacity to save every life under exhausting and pressure-filled environments.
Kamlesh’s devotion towards his profession is beyond passion. He treats every patient like his own family member.
“The hospital environment can be destressing and boring. So, I become friends with patients and note down their favourite things to do. In between, whenever I find the time, I keep them entertained,” he shares.
In 2018, Kamlesh was awarded the Florence Nightingale award by President Ramnath Kovind in New Delhi for his selfless service and years of dedication beyond the hours of duty. Named after the famous British nurse and reformer Florence Nightingale, the national award recognises nurses’ contribution to the field.
“He (Kamlesh) has rendered his services always voluntarily in mass casualty and disaster situations. He also went for voluntary relief work during Banaskantha and Surat floods. He was in Kutch for relief work very next day after the fateful earthquake. This award has added a proud feather in the very dedicated nursing services in Public Health institutions,” reads the award citation. It also notes that Kamlesh has done “extraordinary humanitarian contribution in the nursing profession.”
While it was no doubt that Kamlesh was proud to achieve such a prestigious award, he associated the milestone with increased responsibility. “Nursing is not a very fancied profession so when I got the recognition, I was on cloud nine. It boosted my morale and encouraged me to perform better,” he shares.
As Kamlesh shares his once-in-a-lifetime experience in Delhi, I am curious to know how a middle-class Gujarati boy chose the female-dominated profession, ending up winning such a prestigious award.
But I have to wait as he excuses himself for two minutes to check if a fellow-nurse or a patient needs any kind of help. As promised, Kamlesh returns quickly and begins his unusual but extraordinary story.
‘I Belong Here’
Kamlesh grew up in a Vadadora neighbourhood in a typical Gujarati household that gorged on food and danced their hearts out in Navratri. His parents and most relatives worked in hospitals as non-medical staff and did clerical work. This was probably the reason why unlike most of the children his age, Kamlesh was not scared to visit hospitals.
For him beeping monitors, the smell of medicines, cries, hugs, nurses and doctors attending to patients was a fascinating world. The boy knew he belonged here. The dinner table conversations revolved around hospital miracles, “My parents would narrate their entire day as if telling me a story. For me heroes were never fictional characters, they were always nurses and doctors trying to save and improve lives.”
Meanwhile, Kamlesh’s parents also spotted his interest in the medical field. They provided him with all the necessary information with regards to higher education and let him decide if he wanted to do medical or clerical work.
He chose to be a nurse, a rather unconventional profession for men, especially in India, “Nurses have the privilege to form a bond with the patient and their families. Nurses are the first ones to hold a newborn and close the eyes of a deceased. Though it is a thankless job and rarely are nurses appreciated, they radiate kindness and compassion. I saw myself in them.”
Kamlesh completed his BSc in Chemistry and pursued 3.5 years of nursing course in 1991. In his final year, he chose to specialise in Emergency Medical Disaster Management and underwent six months of rigorous training in College Of Nursing SSG Hospital.
On-Field Duty: Rising Over Fears & Emotions
Working during disasters like floods, terrorism, or an accident is no mean feat. Whether it is doctors, firefighters or nurses, almost all first responders experience life and death in close quarters. It does not matter if the patient is hit with a bullet, stuck under rubble or is severely injured, on-field nurses have to rise above their fears and emotions to help the patient.
Mentors and teachers asserted this throughout Kamlesh’s training period and not for once did he think of quitting. However, that did not mean he had no fears or hesitations. “Overcoming fear was not an overnight task. It took years of experience, mistakes, yelling, crying and rising from the rock bottom,” says Kamlesh.
The braveheart kickstarted his career with long shifts with his first posting in 1996 at Bombay Hospital & Medical Research Centre in Marine Lines. With time, he climbed his career ladder and worked at various government hospitals.
In 2001, Kamlesh came face to face with a calamity for the first time during the devastating earthquake in Kutch that claimed lives of over 20,000 locals.
Two days after the tragic incident, Kamlesh was sent to Bhuj by the Gujarat Government. He saw buildings sinking into the ground, destroyed houses and lakhs of families displaced. For nearly a week, the medical disaster management team stayed without food, electricity, water and proper roofs. They slept in ambulances at the medical camps surviving on just a bottle of water.
“We worked round the clock to treat the victims. Some lost their organs and some the will to live. Bandages, injections and medicines were not enough to bring normalcy. As nurses, we had to give them hope and ensure their mental stability,” shares Kamlesh.
Kamlesh stayed there for nearly two months and in the course even hurt himself while treating others. Though he was prepared in every way, maintaining calm in the midst of chaos and cries was challenging.
But, there were many takeaways. He learnt how to quickly adapt to the nursing care needs with minimal equipment, be confident even in the absence of information and most importantly be compassionate to a fellow human without swaying in emotions.
The learnings came handy in his next disaster management stint during floods in Surat in 2005 where he served for three months.
“The situation was similar in Surat, except that instead of buildings, people were drowning and dying of hunger. We worked with very limited relief materials in neck-deep waters. The water force was such that people were pulled away in front of my eyes while I was attending a victim. I felt helpless and guilty for not being able to save every life,” he says.
From deaths, lost children, sick patients to the danger of malaria, Kamlesh experienced several lows in Surat. Despite this, he kept his confidence and jolly nature intact in front of the patients, something that every nurse is trained to do.
In between the two natural calamities, Kamlesh worked in a couple of government hospitals in Ahmedabad, Surat and finally Vadodara, where he is currently posted at. If not handling the emergency on-ground situations, Kamlesh does duty for VIP patients.
The weight of these valuable lessons is not lost on him even today as he serves COVID-19 patients.
Though the lockdown demands people to stay inside the hospital, it has not stopped Kamlesh to go beyond the call of duty and help the needy on-ground.
Ever since the lockdown, Kamlesh claims to provide meals to 200 medical staff including doctors and nurses at S.S.G hospital every day, “We have also distributed 25,000 face masks, 2500 sanitiser bottles and 300 ration kits to slum dwellers,” he adds.
When asked if he or his family fears getting infected with coronavirus, Kamlesh lets out a light-hearted laugh and says, “I have worked in worse conditions than this. If I could emerge as a stronger individual during massive destructions, I can definitely sail through this storm too. As for my family, they still worry but they have given me immense support and have gotten used to my irregular working timings. All I have to do is stay optimistic and follow the rules”
On that note, he politely excuses himself as it is almost time for his duty and asks everyone to stay strong.
With decades of experience and accolades, Kamlesh has discharged duties in several roles and yet the humble nurse prefers to do bedside duty so that he can expand his patient-family. He leads by example and constantly strives to prioritise patients and deliver quality health care over everything else.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)