The man in shalwar kameez at the hospital – A Covid-19 story

“You have Covid pneumonia,” were the emergency Doctor’s direct words. “Your oxygen is a bit low. If it drops further, you need to come back.”

I had a blank stare.

Honestly, it didn’t phase me, by this time, I was so weak and beaten down by this virus, I just wanted to be better. I had been dealing with this for over a week, I forgot how feeling normal was. Never in my life had I had a fever for over seven days straight.

Over the course of that day, I weakened more, and sure enough, my oxygen levels dropped. I found myself back in the hospital later that day. My oxygen levels dropped further while in Emergency. They admitted me.

I must say, it was miraculous that a bed and room were available for me in the wee hours of the night. I was taken there. And that’s when everything started.

You know, your emotions run high when you’re alone, and you think about a lot of things. Especially when you’re suddenly alone.

Yeah alone. Like alone, alone. Like jail? Yeah, something like that.

When I had Covid-19, I was isolated in a hospital ward. It was completely sealed. Patients weren’t allowed to leave their rooms and no one was allowed to visit. If you wanted to do anything, walk, talk, stare at the walls, think, whatever, you would have to do it alone in your room.

You were in that damn box day and night. Time wouldn’t move, especially at night. Not only is the temperature freezing, in my case, I couldn’t move because my lungs hurt so much at night, especially after waking, nor could I sleep continuously. It’s not that I didn’t want to move. Actually that’s not true. I really didn’t want to move, I prolonged it for as long as I could, because I knew what was to come after, but I knew I had to if I wanted to get better. My body felt so hard on the bed. I felt like a log. It was all connected: I knew when my eyes opened, the cold would mercilessly seep in and grip me, all-the-while I’d try to adjust myself because I had to shift my body to break the stiffness. Then the violent coughing would start, which would bring pain to the chest. It was a vicious cycle that happened only at night, and I dreaded every moment of it.

Urinating was the worst at night. You knew you had to go as your body wrestled sleep away into consciousness, jabbing you to wake up. They gave me cans to go right there, but first you had to get up and then swing out of bed. Sounds easy. Think of everything I just mentioned to just move. When you were finally on your feet, you had to manage the oxygen wire, fumbling for it with one hand, and the can in the other. Fellas, have you ever gone in the dark while being precise? It’s a circus act. But the show gets even better. They light you on fire! Of course, the performer knows better. True say, it’s a real-life circus story. If you want to work in the circus, you got to pay your dues, and a lot of that takes a physical toll. See, as I would stand there, this unexplainable burning sensation in my entire body would begin, always from the feet, then working its way up. It was a race to urinate, my body getting weaker as the burning consumed me. It was a wildfire and I was its forest. I could barely hold the can by the time I was done because of its weight, I had little strength. But also because I was lit up, on fire, and I had to immediately sit, literally eject from that standing position because I couldn’t take it anymore — better be finished beforehand! — or something worse could happen.

In the day, with each still-moving passing hour, you’d feel the temperature start to drop, and you knew night would come again, and it would start all over. I tried to be careful, despite each calculated body shift, but that inevitable sharp pain found its way back in my chest each and every time, that I literally held onto, pressing hard against the upper part of my chest in efforts to suppress it. I asked myself: “What the hell is this thing?”

One day, when I spoke to the Doctor, I punched my chest repeatedly, showing that this was one remedy I was trying. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” they said. I would probably have to be cured by drugs and medication. I know those drugs they were giving me were trying to fight Covid and my pneumonia, and I felt side effects — you got to understand, I don’t even take a Tylenol if I have headaches — but that was part of the recovery plan. I had little say. I took almost everything they gave me except the sleeping pills and stool softeners. Initially I tried them, but after, I got off them. “We’re going to tell the Doctor you aren’t taking this,” the nurses would threaten. I had to make an excuse each time to not want them. Too many drugs in my system. I felt so strange. Like some out-of-body experience. I had strange dreams of nurses telling me what to do and the floor felt uneven. I felt small, like my head was shrinking.

Now, speaking of Time. Time was my enemy. Every time I checked it during those cold nights, only a few minutes had actually passed, but you could have sworn you were lying in bed for longer. Getting through the night was a life sentence. It felt like an entire day just to try and pass five or six hours.

When you tell the Doctor and nurses you can’t sleep, or anything else that you feel wrong with you, your body burning up, etc., they have only one answer: “It’s Covid. And it’s doing that to your body.” I would affirm that I’m doing my lung exercises and walking around. “Good,” the Doctor and nurses would say. I wanted to show them I was doing my best to get better.

I got to say, the tone and some of the behaviours of the Doctor and nurses and how they addressed me was disheartening. Where’s the love? The Doctor would speak to me in a straight-forward, direct tone that didn’t invite any feelings of relating. It was monotone, loud and felt like I was being talked down to. I’m good with the info and I’m not going to make a huge stink about it so much — I really didn’t have a choice to, — but you notice these things. I don’t think I would want to talk to patients like that. A smile would have helped. I did meet some very nice nurses, albeit, they were in the minority, and those best of the bunch were right when I arrived (except for Dimitri at the end too). Things quickly changed when that bunch left for future rotations. “They forget we’re in the care business. Some are here just for a paycheck,” said one nurse when I complained about what I saw. The classic was when you beeped at night for a warm sheet, they’d just crack open the door and place the sheets on the counter adjacent to the door. It was up to you to get it despite the situation you were in. I had one nurse who told me to get up every morning. “You can’t be lying in bed all day. The body is designed to move,” she said matter-of-factly. I had her for three days. She never smiled and made several sharp comments. She even got into a bit of a scuffle the last night she was here with some other nurses that I overheard during a planning session. Nurse from hell? I don’t know but I was sure glad I never saw her again after that third day. She meant well but had zero people skills. I missed that first nurse who I met the first two nights I was there, very mother-like, she tucked me in and I thought that would be the way it was. I was wrong. I’m not trying to bash the medical team, but it’s hard to hide what I received thereafter.

Some of the stories I was told were pretty scary. “People say goodbye on their iPads,” more than one nurse told me, including Dimitri — He was my last and favourite nurse. He told me I would get better. — “Yeah?” I was surprised each and every time. It was grim.

Anyway, a good number of days passed and one day, the Doctor told me I had to get a CT scan of my chest because apparently Covid causes blood clots, and they just wanted to make sure nothing was going on there. Almost two days passed before I was informed they would take me down. It was after 8 PM. I was wired but getting tired. And the temperature in the room was dropping, soon it would be freezing cold.

They finally brought a transport bed by my door. And this is where I felt so bad for elderly patients. At this point though, I wasn’t surprised. They just expect you to hop on! It ain’t that simple. I saw a lot of do-it-yourself actions you’d have to take despite your health limitations. God help those poor elderly vulnerable souls. It’s so easy to fall and slip. For the elderly, old age is a curse in a place like this, and for the rest of us, the bad health holds you back from doing the most simplest things. But the show seems to want to go on in this place. If there was any consolation, I had a nice volunteer take me down for my scan who listened to me along the way. I was glum. “You know you can refuse a nurse if you want to right?” she said. “Really?” I said. “Does that actually happen? It’s more trouble than it’s worth.” She replied, “No, no. You are a patient and you deserve good customer service.” She was adamant.

As she wheeled me down, I was resting flat on the bed. Things around me were moving fast. In reality, it probably wasn’t as fast but when your system is in shock, reality feels altered. As we approached the lab, I did feel concerned. “Is there a lot of radiation?” I had asked the Doctor. “Well, not as much as before. But it’s something we just have to do…”

And then I saw something very familiar. It’s something I wouldn’t have paid much attention to before, or that would elicit the feelings I now had. In fact, I would have thought that it looked kind of ghetto to walk around like that. I wouldn’t certainly do it on the regular. And I would have shunned it in a way. But that was the irony…

I saw a man decked out in full shalwar kameez waiting for an elevator. He didn’t notice me. I instantly felt so good seeing him. It gave me newfound hope. I don’t know why. It just did. To be honest, it got me emotional. I had to quickly hide the tears from the volunteer. In that moment, I realized I was wrong. How come he didn’t look ghetto now? Why was I paying so much attention to him? Why did he give me hope? I didn’t care. All I knew was it felt so good to see a man in shalwar kameez. Something so familiar to me my whole life. And there he was. A symbol of so much. Existing on his own terms. Just going about his day. He’s probably so used to it he didn’t even think twice about his look. I wish the volunteer could have read my mind. I wish she had stopped. I would have loved to speak to him. I’d speak to him in Urdu straight out of the gate. We’d have a pleasant conversation. I’d smile. He’d smile. I would nod my head and say Assalamualaikum. And he would say Walaikum Salam. I’d ask him how he was and he’d do the same. I’d ask him where he was from. He’d ask me where I was from. I would thank him for being himself. He’d say: Mein samja nahin؟ I don’t quite understand? I would tell him he gave me so much hope. I would pray for him right there. Allah aap ko sihat de. Allah aap ko silamti se rakhe. Aap jante nahin ho ke aap ne bhot baddi nekki ki hai aaj. May Allah give you good health. May Allah keep you safe. You don’t realize just how big of a great deed you have done today…

I never thought I could say that one of my highlights of contracting Covid-19 would be a man in the hospital wearing shalwar kameez. But there he was. And here I am, recovering, and grateful…