Sister Beena’s pilgrimage through the COVID-19 plague (I)
by Sr. Dr Beena Madhavath, UMI

Sister Beena Madhavath is a member of the Congregation of the Ursulines of Mary Immaculate. Her hospital in Mumbai was among the first to adopt a protocol to treat COVID-19 patients and set up a ward dedicated to them. Her experience includes joy, pain, fear, but also hope supported by faith.

Mumbai (AsiaNews) – Sister Beena Madhavath, a member of the Congregation of the Ursulines of Mary Immaculate, is also an obstetrician and a gynaecologist who trained in Germany and Australia. At present she is deputy director of the Holy Family Hospital in Mumbai and secretary for the health sector of the archdiocese.

As a doctor, she has first-hand experience of first aid and intensive care, but she also knows how to inspire hope in those who are sick and bring comfort to those who are prostrated by the loneliness of the lockdown. Likewise, she can share in the pain for the dead and find the signs of God in the darkness of this plague.

So far, India has reported 2,647,663 cases with 50,921 deaths. Sr Beena decided to share with AsiaNews her "pilgrimage" through the COVID-19 pandemic, noting that her hospital treated more than 1,200 coronavirus patients, including ten priests and ten nuns. What follows is the first part of her experience.

Beginning of the journey

My journey with the COVID 19 pandemic began in February 2020, when I heard about the first few COVID cases in India. Initially, I was gripped with fear and anxiety as I knew very well what had happened in China and Italy. I was also not sure about how we would be able to manage this crisis, given India’s socioeconomic context and fragile health care infrastructure.

The management committee of our hospital, Holy Family in Mumbai, recognized that the coronavirus was going to be a major pandemic and would severely affect our country, especially Mumbai. Planning and follow-up action immediately began. We were one of the first hospitals to follow infection control measures, including fever clinics and training. As more cases were reported across the city, we started to offer triage and referral services, when many hospitals went into lockdown in fear of the pandemic. Later in mid-March we procured high quality personal protective equipment (PPE) to provide best possible protection to our medical team. Several rounds of intensive training and motivation building sessions were conducted regularly for doctors as well as other employees. At the same time, standard operative protocols were prepared.

It took almost a month to operationalise the COVID-19 ward and ICU, since the regulations with regards to isolation wards required major changes in our existing set-up. We were one of the first hospitals to partner with the government in the battle against COVID 19, when we signed an official MOU with local authorities (MCGM) and started a COVID care centre. Thereafter, we allotted 25 beds in the hospital exclusively for the care of the patients; this included 12 ICU beds. Today, due to the spiralling number of cases in Mumbai, on a daily average, we are caring for about 130 COVID positive patients with 26 of them on ventilators.

Joyful experiences

Every healthcare worker at the forefront of the war against the coronavirus is not only facing the daunting task of handling patients, but also fighting to keep their own worries and emotional stress at bay.

So, what motivates doctors to keep working under such strenuous conditions? First of all, when a patient recovers and becomes COVID negative it really lifts our spirits and motivates us to do better work and serve our patients and nation when it is needed the most. My personal experience as a practising doctor was challenging as well exciting.

The joy of saving a life: I can very vividly remember an incident. A 71-year-old patient was brought to our emergency with complaints of breathlessness and fever. On examination he was in altered sensorium and had oxygen saturation of 58%. He was resuscitated and stabilised in casualty ward, later shifted to ICU and put on a ventilator. It took almost two weeks for him to recover completely. After his discharge when he came to whisper a note of thanks, I was moved by his gesture, indeed a rewarding moment for the entire medical team. As tears rolled down my cheeks, I savoured the joy of saving one life – a feeling much beyond any other joys in life.

The joy of alleviating suffering: I also had an opportunity to assist the birthing process of one of my COVID-positive pregnant women. Wearing a PPE kit and conducting the delivery was a new experience for me. As I finished the delivery, with folded hands and tears in her eyes she expressed her gratitude to me. It was such a blissful experience for me. This experience etched a lasting impression, which shall remain green in my memory and fresh in my heart. There is always a sense of fulfilment and satisfaction amidst all the fatigue and exhaustion of this harrowing time.

The joy of sharing best practices with others: All this was a great learning curve for me. I also got an opportunity to share my knowledge and few of the best practices with the other hospitals in our network through two webinars, which were organised by the Catholic Health Association of India. I am also a member of the crisis management cell of the Archdiocese of Bombay (Mumbai), which holds regular meetings to review the situation as well as the Catholic response to the coronavirus pandemic. I too am in a way getting enriched as I contribute my expertise and experience, at a time when it is needed the most.

The joy of giving leadership: Another pioneering involvement with COVID-19 began when I was invited by the Catholic Health Association of India to partner in a project named Corona Care Life. This was a web-based platform with call centre facility for anyone who wanted to talk about the coronavirus over the phone. Infected people looking for comfort and support or people with fear and suspicion about their own condition could avail themselves of this facility. An online platform to provide counselling in different languages was launched jointly by CHAI, Project vision, Billion lives, Sister Doctor’s forum of India and several other organizations. I coordinated this activity among the Sister Doctors. Some of the Sister Doctors generously volunteered for this, to reach out to others with compassion and kindness.