Vasuki Sinnan, 64, was a nurse at the same hospital where her husband works when she tested positive for the novel coronavirus three weeks ago. She then came down with fever, chills, cough, headache and lethargy - all known symptoms of the COVID-19.
She has not reached the stage where she requires hospitalization; she can still breathe without a ventilator and does not need to be in an intensive care unit.
Still, she is weak, spends most of her day in bed and finds even taking a shower "like running a marathon," in her husband’s words.
Yet, as a nurse who took an oath herself to care for others, she cannot keep her husband at home for her selfish needs when New York is at the epicenter of the US coronavirus outbreak and the state needs him to tend to people more sick than her.
So, they jointly made a decision that he goes to work while she tries to recover slowly at home.
‘We Should Be Working… They Need Us’
"As medical care professionals, we’re exposed to the patients we’re caring for," Sinnan told Sputnik over the phone this week after returning from his shift at the North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, New York City. "I didn’t contract any symptoms but my wife did. My immune system is probably better than hers. Whatever the case, we’re essential workers. So long as we don’t exhibit any symptoms, we protect ourselves and those around us from any possibility of infection, we should be working. The city, state and country needs us."
US COVID-19 cases passed the 460,000 mark on Thursday, with New York's more than 5,000 deaths accounting for about a third of the national tally of over 16,000.
Going to work is like entering a warzone for Sinnan, who dons a multi-layered bodysuit to obliterate any chance of taking a hit from the virus.
But unlike a soldier, he has no weapon to fire back.
"There is no vaccine, no drug, nothing we have to neutralize this enemy. People can only get better naturally. And when they do, we really celebrate," he said.
Being properly attired for work is one thing; being conscious of every move to ensure his safety is another, says Sinnan.
"I wear my uniform to the hospital and once I get there, I take that off and wear a disposable one. Before I go into the ICU where I work, I’ll wear another gown on top and a cap. Throughout the time, I’ll also have my N-19 respirator, surgical mask, goggles, facial shield and gloves on," he said. "Each time I exit the ICU, the gown, cap, respirator, surgical mask and gloves are discarded. The goggles and facial shields have to be cleaned for reuse."
All the COVID-19 patients he cares for are in ICU and on life-support.
"The last thing we want to do is bring any new infections to them or let ourselves be infected by what we touch or what’s in the air," Sinnan said.
Staying Cautious Even After Work
Returning home means being just as careful, he said.
"Upon leaving the car, I’ll sanitize my keys before I open the door, then the door knob. After I get in, I go straight into the shower, discarding everything. Throughout the time, I'm at home, I’m wearing a mask. I try to be as protective as I can be, since Vasuki is already infected," Sinnan said, adding that his wife isolates herself in a separate room and he maintains his six-feet distance in her presence.
The Sinnans live in a two-family home, with the top floor occupied by his daughter, son-in-law and the couple’s 10-month-old baby.
"We haven’t had any contact with them. I haven’t carried my grandson for more than a month," he said.
He hasn’t gone out for grocery shopping either in that duration, thanks to a pantry and refrigerator often stocked months in advance - a practice cultivated over the past 35 years since he left his native Malaysia for Britain, before moving eventually to the United States.
Sinnan does not need to buy fresh vegetables too as he grows his own in his garden. Some of those greens are helping his wife’s recovery, he said.
"She is on Indian ayurvedic diet with ginger, garlic and cumin seeds. We're seeing progress."
Multiple Dressing, Cleansing Rituals
The ritual of dressing multiple times in a day just to go through doors, and cleansing everything one touches can be maddening. But for the sake of safety, it has to be done, said Sinnan.
"I go in and out of ICU at least four to five times a day. If a patient becomes very sick or unstable, I might have to do it many more times. Every nurse cares for three patients on the average. There are 12 beds and six nurses in my unit. You can imagine the amount of protective equipment we use in a day," he said.
Sinnan is thankful that the North Shore University Hospital has adequate supplies of these. Being in one of the less populated Long Island suburbs of New York’s Nassau County has seen the hospital attracting fewer COVID-19 cases unlike Queens’ Elmhurst Hospital, where doctors have had to recycle masks for days and a meat-transporting refrigerated truck had to be brought in to serve as a back-up morgue.
Whatever the case, staff at his hospital have been conscientious in preventing wastage, he said.
"Once you go into the ICU, and if you need something, it should be made available to you, instead of you having to come out. What we have is a floater, a person who’ll just be going around and helping fetch things from outside. I'll just ring the bell and they’ll come and hand me what I need. In that case, we use less equipment per individual. And everything is still very well contained."
While the North Shore University Hospital has been able to accommodate all incoming cases of the COVID-19, it was getting filled up too, said Sinnan.
"There are more cases coming in. We used to have a surgical ICU, medical ICU, neuro ICU, cardio-thoracic ICU and CCU - now out of the five, four have been turned completely into ICU for COVID-19 patients. On top of that, we have placed another 20 over beds in another wing of the hospital. There are nearly 100 beds now," he said.
Sharing the Pain
Besides the suffering of the patients, he feels for the pain of their loved ones.
"All COVID-19 patients have zero visitors from the moment of admission. Unless they get better, their families never get to see them again. When a death happens, we just call the family and let them know that their loved one has passed away, and then we send the body to the morgue," he said.
If there is one thing he wishes to change, it’s the attitude of those who downplay social distancing on the false notion that their immunity is strong enough to withstand the virus.
"This thing has killed old people and young people. You’re lucky if you haven’t been infected. But if you have and you're an asymptomatic carrier and you’re not practicing distancing, it’s dangerous for those around you. I just tell people: If we do this properly once, we may not have to face this again. Let’s just do it. Don’t complain," he said.
While he’s worried about his wife, he is confident she will make a full recovery to return to work by his side.
"Everything is trial and error for now. Every day is a new discovery," he concluded.