There is a saying that one should ‘Work like a professional, but live like a human being’ in order to live a balanced life. A majority of doctors have been deprived of the opportunity of living like a human being during this pandemic
By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee
I must confess that though being a doctor I had never heard of a National Doctors Day, so it came as quite some surprise to me to learn about a Happy Doctors Day being celebrated on 1st July. My first reaction was that this was not the best of times to celebrate a Doctors Day, what with the Covid-19 pandemic seemingly unstoppable in the world, with deaths that have now reached 530,000 and the total number of infected cases nearing 11 million. As had been foreseen by the competent authorities in the matter, several countries have been entering a second phase after an initial ‘flattening of the curve’, and there are second lockdowns taking place. It has been predicted that there will be a repeating pattern of opening up and lockdown – ‘rolling lockdowns’ – as the pandemic continues, until an effective vaccine combined with effective treatment is rolled out: and we are talking here in terms of a couple of years at least.
A portrait made with the pics of all the doctors and nurses who passed away during the Covid-19 pandemic – Photo – st1.latestly.com
Which means that the accent, as it has been from the beginning, has to be on prevention by testing, sanitary measures and treatment. The sanitary measures have been recommended for the protection of people and communities. While earlier practically everyone strictly complied, unfortunately we have seen how in the past several days in some parts of the world people have openly flouted these precautions, with the result that where this happened second surges have followed.
Inevitably, therefore, this has swelled the numbers of patients needing treatment – by doctors and other health professionals who are already overburdened, in health systems stretched to capacity. They have been called ‘corona warriors’ – a label that they would probably have preferred never to be tagged with. From the juniormost to the seniormost, health staff have been placed under tremendous and unprecedented strain as they have battled to relieve symptoms and suffering, and to save lives.
Alas, not always successfully for many reasons, a main one being the unpreparedness through initial denial of the epidemic in even the most developed health systems such as in Italy, France and the USA, leading to an incapacity to cope with the numbers due to inadequate facilities. The consequence of these – notably lack of protective gear, ventilators, medication – was complications, mishaps and avoidable deaths. Despite these systemic gaps, doctors as the frontliners with direct responsibility for their patients could not help feeling disappointed and even guilty when patients slipped away from their struggling hands. Doctors and nursing staff in particular, along with their families, have suffered as much as patients and their families too.
In fact, doctors and nursing staff have faced a number of problems and challenges caused by the coronavirus, and all of them are far from being entirely resolved. The impact was on both their physical and mental health, as often they were forced to work long hours, often ill-protected as well, with the constant fear of catching the infection. Which did happen, and inevitably, there have been deaths.
The exact numbers worldwide are not available, but for example, in early June Italy had recorded 63 deaths among doctors and hundreds of nursing staff infected. In the UK, so far there have been about 70 deaths among doctors. And in India two weeks ago in one hospital in New Delhi four senior doctors had lost their lives – including the one who was head of the ICU in that COVID hospital. And in Mauritius we lost Dr Bruno Cheong, who had diagnosed patient Zero – who himself died too after irresponsibly spreading the bug around. To these numbers, sadly one must add deaths by suicide as well; some doctors could simply not bear the pressure any more, and that included a 39-year old lady doctor in a New York Hospital, head of the Emergency Room where corona patients kept streaming in.
Additional problems have been the discomfort of having to wear surgical masks for hours on end, which has given rise to skin lesions in some staff. Similarly, working long hours in ‘spacesuit’ gear especially for surgeons has caused problems too.
Exhausted coronavirus doctors pictured sleeping on floors – Photo – i2.wp.com/metro.co.uk
No less disturbing has been emotional toll. Many staff on prolonged duty preferred to stay back in hospital quarters or quarantine centres, so as not to expose their families to the risk of contamination especially where there were children. One of the earliest videos that went viral must have brought tears to many a parent’s eyes: a surgeon returning home after a long day in hospital stretched out his arms as he entered through his front door, seeing his little son running towards him. Suddenly realizing the risk of a hug to the child, he held himself back and slumped on his knees, sobbing, with his hands covering his face as the poor kid just stood there looking at his papa, stopped in his tracks.
One would have thought that doctors are facing more than their share of the pandemic burden, and no one should add to it. But no, that’s not the end of their problems. In South India, junior doctors have been protesting for a month because they have not been receiving their monthly stipend as the State government and the medical college management are locked in a tussle about who should pay. In another State, some obscurantists threw stones from roofs on doctors and associated personnel who had come into a locality to conduct tests. And in the US, there has been violence against public health workers.
In a gesture of solidarity and moral support to the frontliners, we have seen how people stood outside their apartment blocks or stretch out their arms through their windows to show their appreciation by clapping utensils. Some posts from doctors subsequently decried the practice, saying that they’d much rather have proper protective equipment and allowances for their overwork then these noisy token gestures.
So, ‘Happy’ Doctors Day? I am afraid it’s not been quite so for the medical profession in this pandemic. Nevertheless, it may not be a bad idea to show thankfulness and appreciation to doctors who very often have to perform their duties under difficult conditions, and have to meet the ever expanding expectations of patients.
Still, a few words about Doctors’ Day would not be out of place I suppose. The first observance was on March 28, 1933, in Winder, Georgia, USA. Subsequently the US Congress approved its celebration on March 30. However, the date varies from country to country depending on the event of commemoration used to mark the day, and is usually celebrated by health care organizations.
There is a saying that one should ‘Work like a professional, but live like a human being’ in order to live a balanced life: give time to the family, care for one’s own health, enjoy some leisure. A majority of doctors have been deprived of the opportunity of living like a human being during this pandemic. Let’s hope that next year it may be a real Happy Doctors Day…
* Published in print edition on 7 July 2020