“I signed up for this – I have chosen a profession in which I am required to provide care to anyone who comes to me, irrespective of the fact that it could be dangerous or even risky for me,” says Dr Manoj Goel, Director, Pulmonology, Fortis Memorial Research Institute, Gurgaon.
The 55-year-old doctor says the last few months, since the COVID-19 pandemic broke, have felt like nothing short of a war zone.
He has treated more than a thousand COVID positive patients, while “doing my job without any sort of hesitation or fear.”
It is this kind selfless service that earns doctors our unwavering respect; they fight to take care of the mental and physical health of their patients, offering support and willing them to get better too. But how many of us see the person behind the white-coat, or in these days, inside the PPE kit. What is their mental state like? Who do the caregivers turn to for their own care?
“The only thing that keeps me, and perhaps many other doctors, going through this pandemic is the commitment we made to the profession,” says Dr Goel. With stress levels hitting the roof while managing patients, it has become very important to circle back and revisit that commitment from time to time. “I am glad that I am here fighting this head on. That is the satisfaction that I derive,” he adds.
But in war there are casualties – physical, mental and emotional. Speaking about the physical toll that this pandemic has taken on him, he says, “There is no denying that much has changed because of this situation. I have lost close to eight kilograms since the beginning of the lockdown, and the sleepless nights and fatigue are almost constant companions,” he says.
The mind-numbing reality of it all
Dr Goel says that of the approximately one thousand patients he has treated, many were critically ill, on the ventilator, or very sick. It has been a mental roller-coaster for him as he watches the vitals of some patients plummet while others make complete recovery. Watching patients suffer, on this scale, can literally be mind-numbing. Caregivers across the world are experiencing severe mental trauma that has, prior to this, only been observed among soldiers in combat. .
Each caregiver finds his own motivation to soldier on. “Despite all the hardships that one is going through as a frontline COVID-19 worker, the deep desire to defeat the virus is what motivates me”, says Dr Goel. “I hate Corona. All I want to do is get rid of it from the world. It’s that itch that is making me persevere and stay focussed,” he adds.
On the job 24/7
“I have had no break in the last eight months. There is no question of it” says Dr Goel. With patients getting admitted round the clock, the doctor is on call and available to his patients 24/7. “I haven’t even switched off my phone in these last few months and have ensured that I am accessible to patients and their families at all times.” he adds.
Dr. Goel monitors each COVID patient of his round-the-clock with an electronic system. “I have set up a work station at home and I ensure that each aspect of my patients is monitored. When we see some vitals off the chart we take corrective measures immediately,” he says.
These are extremely difficult times that are unprecedented in many ways. “There is a constant churn in the mind, either thinking about a patient or thinking of ways to beat the virus. Sleep is disturbed and will remain that way for some time to come. What can be done about it? We have to go on working,” he says resignedly.
Caring for his family during this COVID pandemic
While he is at the forefront of the pandemic, he also has to keep in mind the safety and well-being of his family. He ensures that he leaves no stone unturned to absolutely minimise any chance of him passing on the virus to his loved ones. “There is a very strict discipline that I follow once I step into the hospital at around 9 a.m., I get into my protective gear and remain in that throughout the day until almost 7 p.m. when I leave the hospital. During this time I do not eat or drink anything,” he explains. Once home, he takes a bath immediately before sitting down to chat with his family and have dinner.
“What we are dealing with is a highly infectious disease and even a small breach on my part can result in way too many lives being impacted. Looking after myself is also part of my responsibility,” says Dr Goel.
How does he switch off?
“The enormity of the COVID pandemic is so high that honestly the thought of unwinding or switching off does not even arise,” he says. Even small things like spending time with the family have not happened in many months now. It is a “relentless battle” and one that, in his opinion, will go on for a long time to come.
While nothing really helps Dr Goel unwind or switch off, he does say that with every patient who recovers and goes home, there is almost a sense of jubilation and relief.
Dealing with loss
“Dealing with loss is perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of being in this field,” says Dr Goel. He speaks of how one only wants to be the bearer of good news and to be the one to break the news of loss always takes a personal toll on every doctor. “There are moments when I feel very tortured but have to still maintain a calm exterior and be as compassionate as possible,” he says.
He uses words like ‘gutted’ and ‘devastated’ to describe some of the emotions that he goes through. “A loss is a loss and it hits home even harder when the patient we lose is young,” he says.
Have you checked on your doctor’s well being?
Just as the doctors are constantly monitoring and checking on the well-being of their patients, shouldn’t we citizens do the same? During the course of my conversation with the doctor, when I asked him how he was faring, he seemed taken aback by my question. “I hardly ever get asked that”, he exclaimed.
The fight against this COVID virus is far from over and Dr Goel is one amongst many frontline health workers who are literally working round the clock to ensure our safety. Next time you meet your doctor, do ask him or her how he or she is doing. And don’t forget to follow all physical distancing norms and wear your mask every time you step out of your house.
(Edited by Nishi Malhotra)