‘We thought they would come back to us’As people get on with life amid the pandemic, a family that lost three of its loved ones to the coronavirus wants people to understand the deadly face of the virus.
Nights make S anxious. He can’t sleep properly. He stares at the ceiling in the dark, deep in his thoughts, recalling what his family has had to go through in the past few months.
First, the virus took his 46-year-old brother, then his 79-year-old mother and then his 55-year-old elder sister. There was no time for the family to mourn. They had to be brave for the living.
But as he and his family painfully and slowly get back to normal life, bitter memories return. All S can remember of the past few months is running from one hospital to another.
He and his other family members would get calls from the hospitals to get this medicine or that with no clear information on the situation of his loved ones—sometimes in the middle of the night. They would wait for a bed to be vacant, they would wait to hear from the doctor on their patients’ condition, they would wait for visiting hours to be allowed to speak to the sick through glass shields.
They would, despite the uncertainty of the prognosis, take turns to stay at the hospitals, so as to say, “We are here with you.”
On a recent quiet afternoon sitting on the porch of his house in Lalitpur, clothed in white, and his head shaved, S wants to tell his story.
“It has been exhausting,” said 53-year-old S, whom the Post is not identifying to protect his and the family’s privacy. “No one should have to go through what we went through. But the pandemic is as strong as ever.”
Every other day the country is recording its highest Covid cases. On Sunday it recorded 2,071 cases, and 22 deaths taking the tally to 107,755 and the toll to 636.
On the wall to the end of S’s porch, three joyful faces peer from frames.
“The virus manifests differently in different people,” S said. “People may take it lightly because the symptoms some people show are not severe. But for those who have seen to what extent the virus can attack and devastate the body, they know the graver side of the virus. Only they will know the pain and the struggle,” he said.
And now when 53-year-old S sees people being careless with hygiene and masks, he bristles quietly and helplessly.
It also makes him sad. That was how it all began for his family.
Just after the first lockdown was lifted in July, his brother, V, was adjusting to the new Covid-19 reality at their sweet shop in Birgunj. But Birgunj’s hot summer made it difficult to work with masks as the sweat made them sticky and breathing uncomfortable. Perhaps that was why his brother may have been little too thoughtless about the coronavirus’s impact at the time, reflected S.
Later that week, his brother burned with high fever, but doctors asked him to stay put at their own home and not to visit the Narayani Hospital, as there were no beds available and Covid cases were already rising beyond control in the city.
But on the sixth day of his fever, he was rushed to Kathmandu’s Star Hospital in an ambulance as his health was fast deteriorating. He was having difficulty breathing and he had diarrhoea. V had a precondition of diabetes, obesity and was a previous heart patient. These put him at a greater risk of the virus’s severity.
Then, in a streak of bad luck, in early August, S’s sister, who had been taking care of V in Birgunj, tested positive. From there a chain contraction started with all family members who travelled in a car to Kathmandu, after a few days later testing positive.
But the virus manifested differently in each of them. His brother’s wife and daughter showed only mild symptoms whereas his sister and mother experienced high fever.
His brother was shifted to Patan Hospital after a night at Star Hospital as it was not taking Covid-19 patients at that time. There for days he struggled to breathe properly. And he was assisted with supplementary oxygen and other treatments. But he could not be saved, he died on August 6, just when he was being prepared to put on a ventilator.
S never had the opportunity to say a proper goodbye to his brother.
“He was sheathed in a black plastic cover the last time I went to the hospital,” said S. “Only his name identified his body and we had to accept it was him.”
Things then took a sour turn. While S was trying to arrange for his brother's funeral and trying to look for a way to gently break the news to his family, people were already calling the family to give their condolences.
“V's wife and my entire family came to know about him through a news coverage on Facebook,” said S in anger. “If I had been given the time, I would have found a way to communicate V's death in a better way to my family.”
S believes the information about his brother's sudden demise drained his sister of her strength, who was isolating at home.
“The hospital should not have given information to just about anyone who calls asking. Information on someone belongs to the family, and there are a lot of things that have to be taken care of,” he said.
Later in the week his sister’s health gradually deteriorated. Her oxygen level dropped and she was taken to Grande Hospital, as at the time it was the only hospital where beds were available for Covid-19 patients.
“The saddest part of taking them to the hospital was knowing that you wouldn’t be able to be with them,” he said. “You rely entirely on the hospital’s staff to communicate and this was really poor. The administration was many times very insensitive.”
The family, meanwhile, fearing stigma, had moved his 79-year-old mother from their Kuleshwor home to her sister’s house. But soon after his mother was experiencing anxiety with all that was happening in their lives and was taken to Tribhuvan University Teaching hospital as she had chest pains. But they had to return after waiting for hours in the ambulance because there were no beds available. They hurried to HAMS hospital.
Eleven days after she was hospitalised, her heart stopped beating and she was put on the ventilator after cardiopulmonary resuscitation or CPR. Although at one point in the week his mother had tested negative, she succumbed to the virus again because of her weak immunity in the hospital environment. But the family hoped that if she would test negative again despite her condition, she could have a proper funeral.
"It would have meant a lot to my mother," said S. “But that never happened.”
S’s mother had kidney failure and she had to undergo dialysis a couple of times before things got worse.
Hospital bills were mounting every day. The family was spending more than a hundred thousand rupees on a daily basis. They tried all treatments possible, like Remdesivir and plasma therapy, buying them in the blackmarket as it had not been approved by the government then.
While the family spent a majority of their days at the two hospitals, S's nieces and nephews started a fundraiser for both his mother and sister to pay the mounting bills. “People think the middle class people have all the money: they are safer and secure but the reality is different.”
“On the other hand, the hospitals wouldn’t even tell us what they were charging us and for what until we would badger them for more information."
On September 12, S’s mother died without them having to take the decision of stopping all interventions. “She passed away just when we reached the hospital to tell them about our decision to pull the plug,” he said. “It was so difficult for us to stop continuing with her dialysis because she was suffering and we had to let her go.”
They had believed that their sister would survive, as she didn’t have any preconditions. However, she had to be put on ventilator support and the doctor said she would need assistance breathing for a while even if she recovered.
S was planning how he would take care of her but in the hospital she was exposed to another bacterial infection. On September 24 she too passed away.
While everything happened, some of S’s neighbours went silent and it was apparent that many were scared of coming in contact with them. Others supported his family and he is grateful to them for their prayers and financial support. His nieces and nephews' posts also garnered more support. It was something that made them feel hopeful in an awfully overwhelming time.
“The virus is not a hoax, it’s not a flu. It just manifests differently in different people. And we need to be serious about it, we need to be careful, facing its deadly side takes away everything,” said S.
For the rest of the world, coronavirus fatalities may be just numbers but for S and his family it is an overwhelming loss.
“We always thought they would come back to us," he said. "We still don’t know where the keys to our house in Birgunj are, and we never discussed it. We thought they would survive. We never thought they would be part of the one percent of Covid-19 deaths.”