by Malini Sarkar
It was almost midnight on 31st December 2019. A few of us gathered together at Kolkata’s Tollygunge Club for their NYE party celebrations. Our group of friends had made a pact of bringing in the year 2020 together, as the club welcomes its 125th year celebrations in its newly renovated grand veranda overlooking the hundred acres of the golfing greens.
After a not very promising 2019, we were all looking forward to 2020, and made grand plans for the upcoming year that was going to change all of our lives. Little did we know at that time, that the year 2020 would change the course of our lives forever and how!!! As the countdown began, we raised our glasses of Champagne, cheered and laughed to welcome the new dawn and celebrated many years of our friendship.
As the year rolled out, our life kept going according to plan. I am an Australian citizen living in Kolkata after my marriage to a wonderful man. I really miss Australia, specially the sea and the food. The smorgasbord of food always amazed me. I did my bachelors in Wollongong and have spent many happy years there. I absolutely loved going to the beach and would often walk up to the lighthouse at North Beach and spend hours just listening to the waves of the sea while the beautiful misty and salty sea breeze played with my long hair. Wollongong is my most favourite place in the whole world. When I was studying at Wollongong, I used to enjoy the long summer holidays in Australia. Although I am in Kolkata currently, I travel to Australia every alternate year. I was planning a trip to Australia, when suddenly there was a murmur about a global pandemic.
As the disease spread far and wide to the European and American continents, I wondered about the mayhem the virus would cause if it reached India. The limited medical infrastructure would not be able to support the vast population in a pandemic. Soon enough the government announced the lockdown, which is probably the longest lockdown in history. Everyone’s life went through a complete change. Most of us felt trapped in our own homes. And perhaps we were the lucky ones. There were people trapped in various places away from their homes, families and loved ones. Fortunately for us, my husband Arjun was with me at home when the lockdown was announced, and we were together. We had to reprogram our lives to the new normal as the rules emerged – masks, social distancing and hand sanitising frequently. Health and Hygiene was our priority and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Just as we thought we were getting used to this new normal, Kolkata and West Bengal saw its worst cyclone in its history, which destroyed many parts of the city and caused large spread devastation all over the State. Soon Arjun got called in by the emergency teams to help restore powers to homes as we struggled with floods and power cuts in several parts of the city. Almost 5000 trees were uprooted in the city of Kolkata alone which made travel difficult and without power the maintenance could not clear the streets. It was a catch 22 situation. It took several weeks to get things under control.
Sitting alone at home I was scared and worried about the dangers that surrounded us. We had a deadly virus stalking us and on top of that we were struck by a devastating cyclone. Our lives became very difficult. At that time, I had no idea about the gruelling time that was still yet to come. During this time, as Arjun was working with the emergency services, he had to travel to various places and had to be in close contact with many people. I was scared for him and put all possible hygiene protocols in place at home so that we remain protected from the virus. But, as we know when things go wrong, everything goes wrong.
One day I woke up with a very bad throat, and a mild fever. While I had a very bad feeling about this, I ignored it and went about doing my work (it was work from home at that time) and didn’t tell Arjun anything as I was worried it would hinder his work. After a few days of feeling under the weather, I decided to call our doctor, who advised me to get tested. Again, I was scared and decided to wait for a few more days as I tried to treat my sore throat with antibiotics. I tried not to panic. I hoped and prayed that it was the flu caused by season change. Unfortunately, it was not.
One morning I woke up and finally told Arjun that I wasn’t feeling well, and I felt as though someone was trying to throttle me and I was gasping for breath. At this stage Arjun was overly concerned and decided that we need an oxygen cylinder. In a city with fifteen million people and thousands of people affected with the virus, it was a challenge to get an oxygen cylinder. After hours of waiting and hunting he finally managed to get one and once I had the oxygen mask on, I felt much better and more confident. While we were contemplating our next move, my oxygen saturation started falling below 90. That’s when both of us panicked. Arjun immediately called doctors about next course of action. Our doctor advised that I needed immediate hospitalisation. The virus had possibly infected my lungs, which made it difficult for me to breathe and I was to be tested. Breathing, which I take for granted and have never paid much attention to, seemed extraordinarily difficult.
Next thing I knew I was being wheeled away into the ICU and could see Arjun through a glass wall separating the patients and their families. It was an emotional moment as tears welled up in both our eyes. My mind was racing with questions. I was worried about so many things. What if my time has come? What if I never get the chance to say goodbye to my baby- my pet dog Happy? I didn’t get a chance to call my parents to inform them of my hospitalisation, what if I never get the chance to say goodbye? I was near an emotional breakdown. Somehow the virus not only managed to infect my lungs but had also managed to break my heart.
I was not allowed any personal belongings in the ICU. That meant that I didn’t have my mobile phone with me anymore, and I would not be able to communicate with Arjun or my parents. I don’t think I have been this scared in my entire life. I have always thought of myself as a very brave and confident person and have dealt with many complicated life situations with ease whether it was my professional life in Australia or my personal life in India. But that day was different. I realised that in some situations, life doesn’t give us the skills to deal with all the problems we encounter. It is through tough life experiences that we acquire the survival skills which will help us overcome the crises in our lives.
My first night at the hospital can be best described as a nightmare! I was being poked and prodded as doctors and nurses started their testing for various health parameters. Multiple Blood tests, X-ray, blood pressure, heart condition, every organ possible was under observation. I had wires and tubes attached to me. All I could do was helplessly sit and breathe into an oxygen mask. It was the most surreal experience as I sat there surrounded by medical staff in their Personal Protection Equipment outfits where all I could see under their face shields was a white mass with eyes wearing glasses. It felt like I had been abducted by aliens and transported to a space station in another galaxy. It was as if I was in a science fiction movie!
The next day, the doctors confirmed that I was Covid positive. I was devastated. My whole life seemed to be falling like a deck of cards. I had no means to communicate with Arjun or my parents. I was scared and isolated. In any hospital the ICU or Intensive Care Unit is the scariest place. There are rows of patients on both sides of a long ward, and everyone is hooked on to various monitors, machines, and equipment. The beeping sound of the machines would make anyone’s heart sink. All around me, I saw patients being rolled in and out. Some went back healthy and some in body bags. It seemed as though the Great Almighty was playing a game of roulette. As I sat there and wondered about my future, tears rolled down, tears of helplessness, tears of fear and tears for the unknown fate that was to define my life.
I was extremely depressed. I would stay up all night in fear and see what was happening to the patients around me. In the ICU the partitions were made by curtains between the cubicles. Hence, I could see the patients who were positioned across from me. I could see so much pain and suffering, that it would bring tears to my eyes. Momentarily, I would forget my own troubles, as I saw how much some people were struggling. All of them were patients affected by Covid and in various stages of breathing distress. I could see some of them breathing their last, right before my eyes. I sat on my bed and prayed for their peace.
Due to the social distancing rules the nurses could not talk to any of the patients. We were not allowed any visitors as per the Covid protocol. It was as if we were together in the ward, but all of us were in our own little isolation bubbles. The doctors and nurses were tired as they were working around the clock due to the shortage of staff. A lot of the medical staff were affected by the virus and staff strength was at the bare minimum.
Looking at my sleep deprived depressed condition, the doctor decided to have a chat with me. He explained how the virus worked and what the treatment plan was. The million-dollar advice that he gave me was, that this was an endurance game – both mental as well as physical. Patience was key. He told me that I would have to stay for about ten days in the hospital and that I had a very good chance of fighting the virus. All I needed to do was remain patient and positive and leave the rest to the doctors.
What baffled me most was how I contracted the virus. I had not gone out anywhere throughout the lockdown, except to visit my parents once a week. So how I got it remains a mystery. It was much later when we came to know that I got infected by Arjun as he was an asymptomatic carrier. I was extremely worried about my parents too, but fortunately nothing happened to them. Everyone at home was absolutely fine and healthy. Arjun contacted some of his colleagues to inform them about my condition and about him being an asymptomatic carrier as he was in close contact with them. He also made a list of all the people we came across in the last two weeks leading up to my hospital admission and informed everyone so that if they showed any symptoms, they should get tested at once.
Meanwhile, as per protocol, the hospital informed the State health department that I was Covid positive. So, they called Arjun to inquire if anybody else in the house had any symptoms. After instructions as per protocol were communicated, the sanitising team arrived within 48 hours to sanitise our house. Arjun was confined to the home under home quarantine rules. The State health department representative was kind enough to sanitise our immediate neighbours too. The local council’s chairman’s wife called Arjun to find out if he needed any provisions as he was under home quarantine. By this time all our neighbours were informed about my condition and our home was made into a Containment Zone. All our neighbours were extremely supportive and called Arjun regularly for updates on my health. As I was the first one to be Covid positive in our neighbourhood, everyone became super careful and wanted to know more about how I got the virus and what they could do to prevent it from spreading.
Meanwhile I was at the hospital fighting for my life and thinking of all the things that had been left unsaid, and all that remained undone. I wished for one chance to tell my loved ones how much I loved them. I made mental notes of all the things that I would do if I came out of this alive.
As the doctors advised me to think of pleasant things, I would sit there on the hospital bed in my oxygen mask and float away to the beaches of Australia in my mind. I would think of the deep blue seas and the white sailboats along the harbour bobbing up and down with the waves. I could almost feel the cool breeze on my face and automatically I could feel myself relaxing and breathing comfortably. My life in Australia was carefree and fun. I had lots of friends who are like family and I enjoyed my work. I had a great life without stress. I really enjoyed the summers there as we had to take leave during Christmas and New Year’s. I would go out every weekend with my friends and try out new restaurants in Glebe or Newtown. Sometimes I would go dancing with my friends on our girl’s night out, or movie night on Tuesdays at Broadway. We would often land up in each other’s houses for a backyard barbecue and have relaxing conversations over glasses of chilled wine. Sometimes, we would stay up late into the night, just to look at the clear sky full of stars, using my friend’s telescope for star gazing.
What I liked most was to take long drives and explore new beaches along the south coast. I really enjoyed my day at the beach with friends, where we would have barbecque parties and play with my friends’ dogs, relax on the gorgeous beaches of New South Wales and watch the most beautiful sunsets.
After a few days, my vitals started improving and the doctors advised that I no longer needed the oxygen support and encouraged me to start breathing on my own. They were also pleased with my recovery and the medication was working for me. On the fifth day I was allowed a phone call and I called Arjun to tell him about my progress. I had missed him and talking to him after so many days. I was excited to update him about everything that had happened in the past few days. He informed me that my doctor had called him every day to give him updates on my progress. I was able to call my parents too. Finally, I could see the light at the end of a very long and treacherous tunnel. I was told that three days later they would run another test for Covid, and if the result was negative, then I could go home. I was excited. I felt better and could breathe on my own and the fact that I could go home soon was music to my ears.
On the day of my Covid test, I counted the hours as I waited with bated breath for the result. The result was negative. I don’t think that there was anything that made me happier in 2020. Finally, I was going home.
After I came home, I decided, that since I’d got a second lease of life, I must do something that will make a difference. I started reading up about Covid and how it attacks the body and what can be done to prevent the spread of the virus. I started writing on various social media platforms, about my experience at the hospital and mentioned all my mistakes and urged my family and friends to follow all the safety protocols. I shared Arjun’s and my contact details so that people could reach out to us, if they needed any help with information regarding the Covid virus and about the do’s and don’ts of the protocols.
Since I’ve gone public with my Covid experience, we’ve received many calls from various people who were completely in the dark about many things. I realised how little people actually knew about the virus and the devastation it caused. I made it my mission, to share as much information as possible with everyone. I felt good about creating awareness among the people. During my stay at the hospital, I became friends with my doctor who is a leading pulmonologist in the city of Kolkata. We also connected on social media so that he can share the latest news about the virus, which I read up and share with my friends and those who follow me on social media.
I hope that I’m able to help people for the rest of my life. I feel that it is what I’m meant to do, and that is why I came back alive. I think I have been very lucky to have overcome this huge hurdle and the reason I have been able to do that, is because of the amazing doctors and medical staff at the hospital, the love and support of my friends and family, and last but not the least my husband who went above and beyond to make sure I returned home safe and sound.
A home that we created with love, a home that means everything to us.
“I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge. That myth is more potent than history. That dreams are more powerful than facts. That hope always triumphs over experience. That laughter is the only cure for grief. And I believe that love is stronger than death.”― Robert Fulghum,
Malini Sarkar is an Australian citizen who currently resides in India. She has spent 16 years in Australia (Sydney) and has a Psychology degree (B.A. Psych) from University of Wollongong and a Master’s degree in Business Administration (MBA) from University of Technology, Sydney (UTS).
She has worked with American Express and Pfizer Australia before moving back to India for personal reasons. Currently she is teaching Personality Development, Communication and English at NIFT -National Institute of Fashion Technology (the leading Fashion College in India) in its Kolkata campus.
She also runs her own Institute in Kolkata, where she has a team of teachers teaching various languages while she conducts soft skills workshops for students and corporate clients. In addition to this, Malini also does consulting work for some corporate companies in corporate communications and also does counselling for select individuals.
Malini is passionate about teaching and also dabbles in interior decoration for small- medium scale events. She currently lives in Kolkata with her husband and fur baby Happy.