Fifty-six-year-old Janet is inconsolable. The Chennai resident had waited for four days in the punishing heat, outside the Rajiv Gandhi Government General Hospital (RGGGH), for information about her dying sister or even a chance to talk to her.
Pricilla Mary, a 58-year-old matron, who worked at RGGGH, had been admitted on May 24 to the hospital after she experienced breathlessness, fatigue and complications due to diabetes. And while doctors who treated her allegedly maintained that she was responding to treatment, on May 28 the senior nurse was pronounced dead.
And her family never got the chance to say goodbye.
"My sister died like an orphan. They didn't even let us see her. She struggled, suffered and left this world all alone," laments Janet. "This is the most cruel fate for her and the family. They say she died because of diabetes and not coronavirus. But if she was not positive for the coronavirus, why did the hospital force us to stay away till the very end?" she asks, her voice choking with emotion.
Janet's allegations are based on multiple factors leading up to the matron's death. The first is a written report from the hospital which was photographed and circulated, stating that the matron tested positive for the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes the disease COVID-19. The government hospital later denied this, claiming there must have been an error in the records, but the family is not convinced.
Admitted with other COVID-19 patients
"Instead of keeping my sister in the Intensive Medical Care Unit (IMCU) which is for regular patients, they had admitted her in the rheumatology block which is exclusively for COVID-19 patients," points out Janet. "When we asked the doctors about it they kept saying they wanted to shift her but they were not getting a window to do this. First, they said she was fine, then they reported that she was feeling breathless and the last time that they spoke to us, she was dead. How do we accept this?" asks Janet.
According to Priscilla's brother, Ebenezer Arul, amongst the reasons given for her death to the family was - sepsis, diabetes and pneumonia.
"We don't understand what really happened," he admits to TNM. "They said that a toe that was amputated years ago had got infected and that is one of the reasons for her death. But why did she have pneumonia then? We weren't given any answers. And we were too shocked to ask more questions," he adds.
The Dean of RGGGH Dr Jayanthi R however maintained that the matron had tested negative twice for the infection and that entries on the case sheet could be a mistake.
The Dean's denial aside, the most difficult aspect of Priscilla's death for the family was being unable to even see her while she was hospitalised.
"We could have said a few words to comfort her, to tell her we are there for her. But they didn't even give us that chance. None of us are even able to come to terms with this death. She was supposed to retire in March but when the tenure of doctors and nurses was extended due to the coronavirus pandemic, she agreed to stay," Janet explains.
Ebenezer says the entire family was against her going back to work.
"We asked why she had to suffer more especially when she was diabetic," he says. "But she made it clear that service comes first. Even her children told her to stay back. But she didn't listen to anyone. That is how much she believed in doing her duty," he adds.
â€˜How can we work fearlessly?â€™
Former and current colleagues add that Pricella's death has sent shockwaves through the medical community.
"The ambiguity over whether she tested positive or not has made us all very scared, " says nurse Valarmathi, the General Secretary of the Nurses' Association and a former colleague of Priscilla in the Thanjavur Government Hospital. "I called her on Sunday (May 24) morning for some important official details. She sounded very sick and said she had a fever and breathlessness as well. I told her that these were COVID-19 symptoms and that she should get treated. She was admitted on the same day," she adds.
Valarmathi points out medical professionals have been working tirelessly for two weeks now to help overcome this COVID-19 crisis.
"If there is no transparency when it comes to even our health, how can we work fearlessly?" she asks.
Infact, a nurse from RGGGH who had worked with Priscilla, tells TNM that the COVID-19 protocol was invoked after the matron died.
"Bleaching powder and a black wrap was done as it usually is for COVID-19 patients," she says. "If she was not COVID-19 positive, they would have made the family get a white cloth and wrapped the body with that before handing it over. Moreover, why will they place a patient with cormorbidities in the COVID ward when they are not positive?" she asks.
According to Ebenezer, the family is still in the dark about whether his sister was infected or not.
"We were scared but put the burden on God and buried her. We couldn't worry about all that," he says. "She has helped so many people during her tenure - from the Kumbakonam school fire, to the Tsunami and even now during the coronavirus, she has worked tirelessly. But she died unable to see her own family. That was our only thought," he adds.
Valarmathi also points out that till the very end Priscilla's sense of duty never faded.
"As soon as I spoke to her on Sunday, she sent me a part of the details that I had requested despite her poor health," she says. "She said she'll send the other part later, but she died before she could. Perhaps the only time, her duty remains unfinished," she adds.