The life of a Covid-19 frontliner: 'My son thought I was dying'


  • Wellness
  • Wednesday, 01 Apr 2020

Attendees of the Sri Petaling tabligh event queueing up for screening at Klinik Kesihatan Titiwangsa in Kuala Lumpur over the weekend. Dr Samir notes that his worry of being infected is more for his children’s sake than his own. — AZHAR MAHFOF/The Star

Family is everything for consultant cardiologist Datuk Dr Sanjiv Joshi.

Earlier this month (March 2020), Health director-general Datuk Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah praised the specialist for his quick action in voluntarily distancing himself from his private hospital and clinic in Kuala Lumpur, as well as his family for 14 days.

Dr Sanjiv was treating Case 29, who later tested positive for Covid-19.

His patient was a 35-year-old woman who had shared a hospital room with Case 24, a Japanese woman who had returned from Indonesia before falling ill.

“My patient was discharged two or three days prior to us discovering that the patient next to her, who was handled by a different doctor, had tested positive (for Covid-19).

“My patient went for testing and was also found to be positive.

“As soon as I discovered this, I isolated myself, even though I had no symptoms whatsoever, ” he recalls.

Both patients were subsequently sent to an isolation ward at Hospital Sungai Buloh in Selangor.

Unfortunately, in addition to the two patients, a student nurse was also infected.

The private hospital then traced all staff and patients who had been in contact with the patients and placed them under quarantine.

As for Dr Sanjiv, he grabbed his things from his clinic and headed straight to his studio apartment, instead of going home.

“I stayed alone, ordered food delivery and cleaned my own place.

“Instead of using the lifts, I used the staircase, but didn’t touch the railings.

“I couldn’t go to the gym, so I worked out in the apartment to build my six-pack, ” he laughs, “and caught up with reading medical stuff.

“I did it because it’s my social responsibility. Also, I didn’t want to go home and expose my wife and kids.

“I could never forgive myself if they had got the virus from me.

“But I was also going crazy!” he says, adding that he and his family would frequently do video-calls to stay in touch.

A family in Shanghai. China, exercises as they watch an online fitness class while confining themselves to their homes during the Covid-19 outbreak. Dr Sanjiv did the same during his self-isolation period as he could not go to the gym to work out. — ReutersA family in Shanghai. China, exercises as they watch an online fitness class while confining themselves to their homes during the Covid-19 outbreak. Dr Sanjiv did the same during his self-isolation period as he could not go to the gym to work out. — Reuters

Conversations over the gate

When the going got tough and he could no longer resist the urge to see and speak to his wife and three children – a daughter aged five, and sons aged 11 and 14 respectively, Dr Sanjiv would wait till it was after 8pm and drive home.

But he never got out of the car.

He says, “My children would shout across the gate, and I’d wind down the car window and shout back.

“Curious neighbours would come out and look at our craziness.

“It was a very difficult time because I just wanted to hug my five-year-old daughter.

“My second son thought I was dying and he was extremely troubled.”

Dr Noor Hisham’s praises also brought about unwanted publicity for Dr Sanjiv, which affected his sons as they were stigmatised in school.

Overnight, his face appeared all over the news and on social media.

“I’d switch on the television and my face was splashed everywhere.

“I would read news websites and it was there; I’d read WhatsApp messages and it was there I couldn’t get away from it.

“I still cannot understand why because there was no reason for it!” he says.

“People were breaking coconuts for me, praying and leaving things in front of my house.

“Everybody thought I was Covid-19 positive and was going to die!”

His sons’ school principals also got wind of the incident and refused to allow the boys to go to school.

Dr Sanjiv says, “I was isolating myself out of duty and I never went home, but the schools didn’t seem to understand this – It was disappointing.”

After his repeated emails explaining that he had tested negative, but was isolating himself to complete the 14-day incubation period, his younger son was allowed back to school – the two boys went to different schools.

“However, he would return home sad and tell us his friends wouldn’t let him join their group.

“They told him to stay away or go home because he was dangerous. That upset him greatly, ” he says.

During his quarantine period, Dr Sanjiv was tested three times and all samples came back negative.

He was then asked to return to work, but not before a joyful reunion with his family, who were only too delighted to have him back.

When examining patients, he adheres to strict safety protocols.

“I wash my hands in front of them and use gloves for examination. The gloves are disposed after every patient.

“I don’t wear masks because it is difficult to talk through masks. Also, masks protect other people, not you.

“For people that you touch, masks do nothing for you, ” he points out.

Like a daily sauna

Working long hours is expected of the medical fraternity.

But putting in the hours while wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) daily is something medical officer Dr Samir Imran Asarudin is still getting used to.

Every weekday morning, he walks into his workplace at Klinik Kesihatan Gombak Setia in Kuala Lumpur and sanitises his hands.

Then he suits up as he comes into contact with all kinds of patients at the clinic, including suspected Covid-19 cases, influenza patients and those with joint pains and non-communicable diseases.

If they are suspected of being infected with Covid-19, they are sent to the adjacent non-air-conditioned makeshift tent for testing.

However, since there is currently a shortage of protective gear, the medical staff have improvised their own gear: homemade face shields and pillowcase head covers.

“We make do with what we have!

“I only change back to normal clothes during lunch break, then I suit up again for the afternoon. It’s like sitting in a sauna the whole day!

“Hopefully, I can lose some weight, but the scales don’t show any changes yet, ” jokes Dr Samir, who also works at Hospital Selayang’s emergency department during the weekends.

He says that the high-risk group include those from the Sri Petaling tabligh cluster, those who were exposed to someone with Covid-19, and those with respiratory problems.

“Our clinic has limited facilities, but we try to screen as many people as we can who meet the Covid-19 testing criteria.

“Despite our tracking, the number of positive cases is not 100%, but ranges from 10% to 50% daily.

“If someone comes in asymptomatic (without symptoms), but meets the screening criteria, we do the test and ask them to quarantine themselves for 14 days while waiting for the results.

“We advise them to stay hydrated and observe hygiene.

“If the sample comes back negative, they still have to be in quarantine until we do the second screening on the 13th day to confirm that they’re clear of Covid-19.

“Because the virus is new, the guidelines change accordingly, ” he says.

All government hospitals use the Real-Time Reverse Transcription Polymerase Chain Reaction (rRT-PCR) testing method, which involves taking nasal and throat swabs.

He adds, “It can be quite uncomfortable for the patient because we need to collect the sample from the back of the throat, which can cause gagging, and from high up the nose, which can feel like a foreign object is being thrust in.

“If their samples come back positive, we call them to come to the clinic or we send an ambulance to transport them to the hospital to be treated accordingly.”

A comforting hug

Despite being suited up from head to toe, Dr Samir says there is still a risk of getting infected as the virus is highly contagious.Dr Samir ready to start the day with a ‘homemade’ protective suit, due to the shortage of proper PPE. — Dr SAMIR IMRAN ASARUDINDr Samir ready to start the day with a ‘homemade’ protective suit, due to the shortage of proper PPE. — Dr SAMIR IMRAN ASARUDIN

“It’s hard to tell if I’m fully protected, although I don’t fear getting Covid-19.

“But I worry for my children, especially my newborn, ” says the father of two.

Like most fathers, Dr Samir longs to embrace his nine-year-old daughter and baby once he gets home, but he doesn’t.

“As much as I want to hug my children after work, I have to sanitise myself first.

“I soap up my hands thoroughly, then I campak (throw) my clothes in the washing machine and have a shower.

“Only after I come out from the bathroom do I pick up my baby girl, ” he explains.

As his patients come from various backgrounds, they pose different challenges – some don’t follow instructions, while some insist on continuing to socialise, among others.

Dr Samir says, “There are things we cannot stop. Everybody has a voice, so they are free to speak up, but it is important to understand that we have to break this chain of transmission.

“I cannot emphasise that enough. Get screened if you suspect you have Covid-19.

“I try not to lose my cool, although it happens sometimes as I’m only human.

“My workload may be heavy, but I try to find a day off as I also have to take care of myself mentally and physically, and spend time with my family.”

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