It started as a regular day. After my regular morning chores, I rode to the office on my two-wheeler. Minutes after entering the office, I felt a debilitating pain in my joints.

Picture of journalist Lavanya Natarajan in a pink kurta, looking directly into the camera, as she smiles.
Voices COVID-19 Wednesday, July 08, 2020 - 12:45

As a journalist, I probably believed I was immune to diseases like COVID-19. Since day 1 of the lockdown, I was working on coronavirus related stuff – following every update about the disease and decoding the media bulletin released by the state Health Department on a daily basis. Even when I found the deaths of young people saddening, I thought I – a journalist covering the pandemic daily – would be immune to it.

But the experience of covering the disease, doing panels on it or studying the reports were no patch on my lived experience as a patient struck by the virus.

It started as a regular day. After my regular morning chores, I rode to the office on my two-wheeler. Minutes after entering the office, I felt a debilitating pain in my joints. It was difficult to even type a letter on my computer. I could feel my temperature rising.

Worried, I went back home and quarantined myself. My physician prescribed some medicines even while asking me to get tested for coronavirus. But I decided to give the test a miss and try the tablets. But as the hours passed, the symptoms aggravated – I developed unbearable body pain, severe headache, heaviness in my eyes, sore throat and dysentery. Added to this, I couldn’t sleep.

I realised I had no other option but to get myself tested but stigma held me back. But on day two, when my temperature rose to 103, I lost no time. I went to the Omandur GH and got myself tested.

By evening, I knew my result was positive. I asked the friend who'd taken me to the hospital to quarantine himself. In exchange, he gave me words of encouragement and support. I was worried about telling my parents the news and so, much later, my sister did the job. To a friend who called from abroad, I cried my heart out.

I was now free from work, the bulletins could wait. The question that now reigned in my mind was, what next for myself.

I decided against home quarantine, since mine was a fairly large family. It was decided that I would get screened at Omandur GH and get admitted to Jawahar Engineering College. The next morning, even as I was waiting for an ambulance to arrive to pick me up, I was living all the stories of stigma I had helped cover for my channel. The arrival of the ambulance itself involved a huge process – it took about three hours. When it finally came, the entire street was staring at me, in the new-found knowledge of my disease.

As the siren sound went off, I could hear my family cry. Much later I heard from them that their phones kept ringing non-stop from inquisitive neighbours. In the ambulance, I was blissfully unaware of the embarrassment that my family had to face, but I had a zillion thoughts swarming in my mind. With an N95 mask on my face and fears in my mind, I could feel my heartbeat racing.

I was guided by a nodal officer to the CT scan room where I had to wait for a while before being called. But even as I was waiting, I felt out of breath and restless. Everything before me was turning dark. I was fainting. My last memory before falling unconscious was a cry for help to the housekeeping staff. Again, there were zillion other thoughts. Even as I was slipping into unconsciousness, I was worried about not seeing my parents for one last time. I remembered the endless media bulletins I had decoded – where young people with no comorbidities had succumbed to the disease. I would be part of the list next day, I thought. All this happened within a minute. I was later wheeled to a ward opposite the CT scan room.

With oxygen support, I regained consciousness but I was still not rid of fear. My hands had turned cold and my BP was at 60. Doctors who examined me said I had had an anxiety attack.

With this development, the decision to admit me to Jawahar Engineering College was reversed. I was now admitted to the Omandur GH. At the time of my admission, the ward had only two other patients. One of them had potentially recovered from COVID-19, but had an attack of pneumonia. His breathing difficulty filled me with fear.

Two days later, a 70-year-old doctor with comorbidities was admitted to the ward. The very next day, the medical superintendent of the hospital and her family were admitted.

Even as the cases were increasing, I suffered another shock on the personal front. My mother tested positive. She was soon admitted in the same ward as me. She had an existing lung inflammation condition and was immediately put on treatment. After a week at Omandur GH, my mother and I shifted to the KP Park quarantine centre since my father was a cardiac patient. The new place turned out to be a nightmare for my mother. She had sleepless nights and after a week on medications, we returned home and quarantined ourselves for 17 days, as instructed by officials.

The journalist in me sometimes pushed the patient behind. It is rarely that a journalist gets an opportunity to be a first-hand witness to the way the system was dealing with the pandemic. From doctors to nurses and sanitary staff, the health workers toiled round the clock, taking care of patients and attending to their needs. I will forever be grateful to the two doctors who took care of me – Dr Sivanesan and Dr Imthiyaz. I only remember their glistening eyes that exuded a certain warmth through the heavy PPE suits.

COVID-19 is not like any other disease in that you cannot have an attender with you. We are often left depending on the frontline health workers for every little need. Of course, there were calls from friends and family. We must always believe in ourselves -- COVID-19 taught me this invaluable lesson. It was in this period that I started doodling and it has now become my favourite hobby. Doodling teaches you the virtues of patience and focus.

I'd be doing a disservice if I failed to mention the food provided to us at Omandur GH. It was the best of what could be provided by nearby restaurants. I even overheard phone calls to frontline workers, apparently from restaurateurs demanding their dues.

From my experience, I know that the country owes our frontline workers much more.

Lavanya Natarajan currently works as a journalist with News7 Tamil television and has 7 years of experience in the field. She has extensively covered politics, health and child related issues in Tamil Nadu. Views expressed are the author’s own.

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