Diary of a Covid frontline worker in Nepal

Security personnel and relatives of the deceased attend a mourning at the premise of infectious disease hospital in Pokhara. Photos: BARSHA KAFLE

A 79-year-old woman lay on the emergency bed, diagnosed with pneumonia due to Covid-19. Even as she was gasping for breath she had a smile on her face, handing over an invitation card to the attending doctor who was also her relative.

Her grandson’s wedding was four days later. Family members from across the world had flown into Pokhara for the ceremony. She died of severe acute respiratory distress syndrome with multiple organ failure a day before the wedding, and it had to be cancelled.

As her physician, I had sleepless nights when her condition worsened. We health-care workers are also human beings. When we lose near and dear ones it takes a toll on our physical and mental health, we grieve when our patients die. We may hide our emotions but we suffer all the same.

The woman was just one of many relatives I have lost during this pandemic. As I grieved with family members gathered at the hospital, we were once again reminded of the Buddhist teachings about impermanence. Yet none of us is ever ready.

“But it must be easier for you to face death as a doctor,” one of the mourners said to me. No, it is just as difficult. If not more, because as a physician I had the added responsibility of saving her life.

Army men dressed in PPE from head to toe had arrived to take her body for safe disposal. Relatives from across the world who had come to celebrate a wedding ended up attending a funeral.

The Gandaki Province government established Nepal’s first provincial infectious disease hospital in July 2020. Since then, it has managed nearly 1,300 Covid-19 cases at a cost of Rs500 million.

Tha Gandaki Province government established Nepal's first provincial infectious disease hospital in July 2020. Since then, it has managed nearly 1, 300 Covid-19 cases saving Rs500 million out of pocket expenditure of common people.

We have lost 52 people to the coronavirus in the same period. The Covid-19 mortality rate in this provincial hospital is 4.1%, relatively high compared to the total number of people who were hospitalised.

The global death rate now stands at 1.97% with a total of 5,318,277 fatalities. This figure is exceptionally high given it has only been two years. Even then, this figure does not include the social, mental and economic consequences to family and friends of the deceased.

But each Covid death is also a lesson for us to learn from. Most of these deaths could have been prevented if only Nepal had a robust primary health care system, and if preventive measures were more strictly enforced.

With the rise of new variants like Omicron, it is also advisable to up our vaccination drive and we should also start administering boosters to vulnerable populations given our stock of doses and those that are on the pipeline.

A man in his late thirties was isolating at home in Pokhara after getting infected. He just had a common cold but I requested him to undergo hospital-based isolation as he was symptomatic. But just a few days after getting admitted, his symptoms worsened and his condition deteriorated. He was then transferred to another hospital, and died soon after.

This was not a case that should have been fatal. Even after 12 years of clinical experience, some of the Covid-19 outcomes I have encountered in the past year have been unexpected and shocking. It must have been devastating for the young man’s family and friends.

Earier this year, when a 86-year-old mukhiya from Mustang died at our hospital of Covid complications, hundreds of Thakalis travelled to Pokhara to show their respect to the deceased despite the coronavirus surge at the time. Young or old, the virus was indiscriminate.

In November 2020, I myself had to self-isolate with an upper respiratory infection due to a coronavirus infection. I thought I would not survive the excruciating body ache, sleepless nights and high anxiety level. During those horrific 10 days at Bayalpata Hospital in Achham I was battling an infection that I was treating my patients for.

An elderly couple had been admitted to our hospital with Covid, both of them had severe symptoms. The husband died within a few hours of admission, but his wife was not aware of his passing until she became critically ill herself, and the family decided to tell her the truth. She passed away a week after her spouse. Medical staff usually have seen it all, but so moved with sorrow they mourned too.

Holistic health care is the central core of modern medicine. But the caregivers can provide only acute biomedical care to alleviate the suffering of Covid patients. Their psycho-social wellbeing and that of their family members are often ignored. And we have not even begun to think about the mental health and trauma of the frontline workers.

Over 800,000 Nepalis have been infected with the coronavirus and 12,852 have died of the disease. It is time we study this data, in particular the common causes of Covid-19 deaths in Nepal. Is it heart attack, blockage of vessels in the lungs, multiple organ failure or acute respiratory distress syndrome?

We must reshape our health policies based on these facts and evidence. We must ensure adequate preparation with ICU beds, oxygen supply, ventilators and other equipment that were in short supply earlier this year.

Only then can we design a robust and customised care system to protect our population from future surges.

Bikash Gauchan is the Executive Director of the Infectious and Communicable Disease Hospital in Gandaki Province.

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