Kwarantynketting: A tale of two hats, lost words and a pandemic by Zainab Priya Dala

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Writer Zainab Priya Dala tells more about her experience as a healthcare worker in the time of COVID-19:

I wear two hats. One hat is the hat of writer.

Words used to pour out of me faster than I could put them onto the page. The other hat is one of healthcare worker. I am a physiotherapist, a profession I have held for over 20 years. Now, as the Covid-19 pandemic rages through the world, I am acutely aware that one of my professions has become a necessity. But it also occurs to me, when I am struggling to sleep at night, that both these professions use the power of touch. Differently.

In my work as a physiotherapist, I have always been a strong advocate of physical touch – coupled, of course, with firm clinical knowledge – to diagnose and treat the many ailments that I am called on to see. The profession cannot endure without the ability to touch a patient’s body, feel their musculature, feel the movement of their ribcage as they breathe and cough, and place knowledgeable fingers on painful trigger points, almost sensing their pulsing pains. Even when I teach exercises to patients – both the elderly who have had strokes, and the young, strapping rugby players who want to improve their form – I use my hands to feel how their unique musculature responds to generic exercises. But the world of physical contact has now been denied me. I am now asked to teleconsult with patients, explaining in frustrating ways how they can heal themselves using whatever apparatus they may have at home. Tennis balls, cushions and even water-filled bottles take the place of gym equipment and pain relief modalities. And then, the alternative is when I am called to the hospital, now more than normal, to see patients for respiratory infections.

We are asked to assume that all patients, tested or not, are positive. We spend more time hunting down masks and gowns than actually talking to patients. There is an air of palpable fear that hangs in the intensive care unit. Colleagues who would normally greet each other with jokes and perhaps a little hug stand a metre apart and relay patient information. There are no dignified whispers; the loud voices from behind masks and visors are necessary. I walk into the ICU, and immediately every eye is on who has come through the doors. A sigh of relief. It is just the physio, and not a journalist, an errant civilian or, even worse, the person from the mortuary.

With gloves on, my hands get sweaty and I try to feel my patient through the latex. The mask is tight and claustrophobic; it causes me to be hasty, and not my usual congenial self. The gown gets tangled up in my stethoscope, and the pen at my neck pokes through into my neck; I fog up the plastic visor with my hot breath. I want to rip away all this protective equipment and simply touch the human being that I am healing. Even their anxious eyes scan my face, looking for a human being there. My smile is hidden and my voice is muffled, but I try. I try in any way possible to convey some form of comfort to the patient.

Sometimes, while I am treating, while I am doing loud percussions on a patient’s chest and back to loosen phlegm, I let my mind wander to words. I can’t write these days. Stories enter and leave my mind as news bylines.

“Woman tries to write a poem. Fails.”

“Writer loses words forever.”

I reach out to my fellow writers all over the world. I am trying to touch someone. But no one really responds. It is the malaise of lockdown and economic fear. Our words were once the tools we used to touch people in some way. But our words are failing us even now. I used my hands to heal people, and used my words to heal myself. But inside all these brand new words that are now going to find their way into the dictionary for our children and grandchildren to wonder about – the words like Covid, coronavirus, lockdown, PPE and many others – I do not find the words that touch me and heal me. As a physiotherapist, I am sometimes called on to visit the homes of very elderly patients who have suffered strokes and, due to lockdown, cannot leave their houses to visit the physiotherapy consulting rooms. Last week, I went to one such home, and in my mask, gown, head cap, covered shoes and face shield, I drew so much attention from the neighbours sitting outside sunning themselves, that one neighbour panicked and shouted out loudly, “Does the old man have Rona?”

With my muffled voice, I shouted back as best as I could, “Relax, sir. He doesn’t have it. But he still needs to be cared for.”

And in that instant, I realised that despite all that we are experiencing, as writers or frontliners or even couch potatoes, all we are looking for right now is someone who cares. Touch does not have to be physical. Touch means reaching out with a call or a text to someone. And, perhaps, that someone could be me, lying awake at night looking for words on the ceiling.

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