During the early months of 2021, my 84-year-old mother fell severely ill. She had a history of mild stroke and geriatric ailments for many years. But this time was different. She had a fall that set her health back drastically and it happened in the middle of the worst of the coronavirus pandemic in India.
The second wave of the pandemic in the country, in April, has been one of the most devastating anywhere in the world. It crossed its peak in mid-May. Through this time, I was trying to find various treatments for my mother who had escaped COVID-19 but whose health was deteriorating fast.
Like me, many people struggled to get proper medical care for their loved ones who had non-COVID ailments in these months. My mother had been staying at a home for aged people in Kolkata for the past three years. She had a fall early on the morning of 8 February that resulted in severe injuries on her face. She developed haematomas—collections of blood outside blood vessels caused by injury—with black patches and swelling under her eyes, and had cuts and bruises on her cheeks. Since I lived in Delhi, my cousin in Kolkata, who had been checking in on her regularly, decided to admit her to hospital. She was treated at this hospital for nearly three weeks, most of it in the intensive care unit. The doctors found that she had a medium-sized tumour on her neck, next to the thyroid gland. They decided not to touch it—not even conduct a fine needle biopsy to assess the nature of the tumour—given her precarious condition. She picked up a stubborn urinary tract infection. We did not know whether this happened at the home or the hospital. While at the hospital, she started showing signs of dementia and would often be in a state of disorientation or confusion. Her demeanour would become like that of a child at times.
When she was discharged early March, she needed to be fitted with a catheter to pass urine. The urinary tract infection flared again within ten days of leaving hospital. She went back into intensive care at the hospital. It was around this time that the news of quickly rising COVID-19 cases in states like Maharashtra started making headlines.
During her second stay at the hospital, doctors brought her infection under control with antibiotics, but there was no major improvement of her general condition. She was discharged again on 8 April but the doctors’ prognosis was not encouraging. They told us that her body was shutting down fast and medically nothing could be done anymore. They gave her a few weeks at most, and asked us to take her home to the family and give her palliative care as best as we could.
This is when our journey of caring and treating a critical patient at home began. All of India, as well as the city of Kolkata, was reeling under the tsunami of COVID-19 infections by the time my mother came home from the hospital. I had finished getting my second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and flew from Delhi to Kolkata on 19 April, the night before the national capital was placed under a stringent lockdown.