When I began my internship in February this year, I had no idea just how much of a rollercoaster ride it would turn out to be. I had my Community Medicine posting first, and for this I was posted in a village called Mugalur, about 30km from my hospital.
The first few mentions of the novel Coronavirus instilled absolutely no fear in me. How would this virus in some other part of the world affect my life in any way? Slowly and steadily, it made its way into India. Even at this point, I had more scepticism than fear.
When I went home for the weekend from Mugalur, I was bombarded with concerns and advice from my parents. Was I wearing a mask? Was I wearing gloves? Were there a lot of patients? Was I washing my hands and sanitising enough?
Truth be told, I hadn’t made a single change to my lifestyle. I wasn’t wearing a mask, let alone gloves. I didn’t believe in Corona. I am a healthy young person; what could a flu do to me? I wasn’t keeping abreast with the high volume of information about the virus and its caseload that was surfacing every minute. It’s just media hype, I kept telling myself. They’re making it bigger than it is. In short, I was in denial and over-confidence was my subconscious mechanism.
My father, an engineer, was aggressively tracking every Corona update there was. A very large proportion of every phone call home was spent talking about the virus, and alternating responses from my side between yes and okay. The housekeeper in my village hospital scolded me time and again for not wearing a mask while seeing patients. But all their advice fell on deaf ears. I noticed a similar attitude among many other interns as well.
Now, more than a month later, both fear and the disease have spread far and wide. The same person who scoffed about the need to wear a mask when I am young and healthy often skips morning coffee because it means taking down my mask. This got me reflecting in retrospect. As medical professionals, are we more nonchalant about infections?
This could root itself in the fact that we spend our entire day with patients who have myriad infections. We wake up in the morning to see disease and we end our day seeing disease. Perhaps this confers upon us a false sense of invincibility. We’ve dealt with so much in our years of practice (or months, in the case of an intern like me), so why should one infection suddenly scare us so much?
But we often forget that it isn’t just about us. Even at the level of an intern, I would be seeing patients both young and old. I’d see a middle aged man with cough and fever, and in the same breath, I’d be seeing an 80 year old diabetic. If I didn’t protect myself sufficiently, how could I protect my vulnerable patients?
I’ve attended multiple classes on the importance of personal protective equipment, and on the importance of safeguarding one’s own health while on the job. Why is it that it took a pandemic for me to really let it sink in?
It’s a point of reflection for all of us as health professionals. We need to take care of ourselves first, irrespective of which part of the hospital we’re in. Appropriate PPE should be donned even in the absence of a pandemic when necessitated, and frequent hand washing and sanitising should be the norm.
I’ve seen articles upon articles about how this disease has taught laypeople about the importance of hygiene. There may well be health professionals who have been taking all possible precautions even before the Coronavirus. But as a young doctor, fresh out of medical school and just getting a whiff of the real world, I admit that it took me a pandemic to nip my overconfidence in the bud.
It’s going to be a long journey, and I’ve finally opened my eyes.