CHENNAI: “Doctor, I am sure you will save me.” It has been a few days now, but Dr KV Raja Lakshmi remains haunted by the words uttered by Kiran (name changed) minutes before he succumbed to COVID-19.
As Tamil Nadu’s caseload inches towards the 1-lakh figure, over 1,300 people have been killed by the viral infection.
Doctors in Chennai, which has seen close to 1000 deaths, say they are weary and traumatised from seeing patients, especially young ones, dying alone. With no drug of choice or targeted treatment available, doctors say they feel helpless.
For Dr Raja Lakshmi, head of General Medicine Department at Kilpauk Government Medical College Hospital, the death of Kiran, a man in his 30s, is the most unforgettable and traumatic incident of her career.
She recalls him greeting her with that same phrase each time she approached him during treatment. “Even as his condition deteriorated, he was confident we would save him,” she says. "Those words still flash through my mind.”
“I couldn't guarantee him anything and I knew his chances of survival were slim," adds Dr Raja Lakshmi.
"Everyday I declare at least six deaths at my hospital,” says one anaesthesiologist posted in the ICU of a private hospital in the city. “I cannot bear to see the emotional trauma that the patients’ families undergo,” the doctor says.
The doctor, like others, admits to allowing family members into the ward so the patient can see their loved ones at least once before they die.
“Recently I allowed a young son to see his critically ill father. The son stood beside his father's bed and cried inconsolably for a long time. Then he quietly walked out,” the doctor recalls. “That moment reduced me to tears."
In another instance, the doctor says a husband and wife were admitted in the same ICU.
"The husband started struggling a lot in his last moments. We were around him, desperately trying to save him but couldn’t and the man died,” the doctor says. “When I turned around, I realised the curtains had not been drawn.”
The patient’s wife had witnessed the distressing last moments of her husband’s death. “I immediately drew the curtains around her husband, but I was disturbed. The next day, the wife died," the anesthesiologist says.
A senior doctor involved in the critical care of Covid patients, at Rajiv Gandhi Government General Hospital, says the most distressing fact is that even in the ICU, the patients are conscious and aware of their surroundings.
"Unlike other patients, Covid-19 patients are able to converse coherently even when their oxygen saturation levels fall below 60. They know they are going to die. Their only request is to be sent home," the doctor says. According to this doctor, at any point of time, there are at least 80 seriously ill patients at the RGGGH Covid-19 ICU.
"With no attenders allowed, these patients die alone,” says Dr K E Govindarajulu, professor of Medicine at Government Kilpauk Medical College Hospital.
“Declaring the death of young patients is so much more difficult for us,” he says.
With relatives often afraid to come and visit the patients, even if called by phone to do so, doctors find the deaths painful to witness.
“Unless it is the patient’s parent or wife, relatives rarely come,” Govindarajulu notes. So doctors try to make video calls and connect the patient and their family.
“But with Covid-19 even healthy patients suddenly collapse due to the lung infection. Their loved ones are unable to understand how they have suddenly died and we are unable to explain it either,” Govindarajulu says. “It is very painful.”