On January 20, the city of Wuhan went into total lock-down as news of the novel coronavirus triggered panic waves across the world. As the Chinese state announced that all public transport would be suspended in the city which is the epicentre of the virus, a group of medical students from Kerala who were studying in Wuhan, hurriedly caught trains out of the city to fly to their home country. Among them was Shahnaz*, a third year medical student from Wuhan, who landed up in Kochi from Kunming.
Shahnaz was screened at the airport but did not exhibit symptoms then. However, when she developed a cold and cough, she reported it at the health centre. A week after her arrival in Kochi, Shahnaz was admitted to the isolation ward of the Thrissur Medical College Hospital, as she became the first positive coronavirus case reported in India.
Today, the 20-year-old is back home and fully recovered from the disease which has so far killed over 2,600 people globally. On February 22, Shahnaz was discharged from the hospital and dropped back to her house in Thrissur, after her 11th and 12th blood samples tested negative for the virus. And if there is one thing that made her recovery easier, it is the advanced public health system in Kerala and all its stakeholders, she tells TNM.
“I have seen the way all the medical staff from top to bottom operate in the hospital. Even before I was admitted, all of the staff, including the janitors, were equipped to handle the outbreak through awareness classes. A team of doctors from various departments such as epidemiology and community health, treated me in the isolation ward. They were calm and friendly when they tended to me. I even had specially appointed counsellors, in case I faced any emotional distress. Many of these doctors spent all their time in the hospital, barely going home,” the 20-year-old recounts.
Away from the isolation ward in the Thrissur Medical College Hospital, health authorities in the district had already begun contact tracing people that Shahnaz had interacted with, before she was hospitalised on January 27.
“The doctors in the community health department got details of every single person I had spoken to since January 23, when I first landed in Kerala. All of them, including my relatives, were screened, observed and placed in home isolation. The health inspector in my locality continuously monitored them, just as she had monitored me when I reached from Wuhan. There seems to be not a link that is out of place in this complex web of public health, with every stakeholder coming together to curb the spread of the disease,” she adds.
The 20-year-old credits not just the doctors at the General Hospital who supported her during her days in isolation. Throughout her recovery, the health inspector in her locality was also a big source of support, she tells TNM.
“In my 25 days in isolation, there were times when I would feel depressed. She (the health inspector) would call and comfort me then. I was in touch with her from the time I had returned from Wuhan and the both of us got very close. I would also speak to the counsellors who would cheer me up,” she adds. Apart from a sore throat and cough which disappeared within a day of her being admitted to the hospital, the 20-year-old had exhibited close to zero symptoms of the disease. Yet, over her days in isolation, nine blood samples drawn from her returned positive for coronavirus.
“When my very first sample tested positive, I watched channels breaking the news. I had no idea that these people were talking about me. So, imagine my shock when doctors broke the news to me the same evening,” she adds. However, being a student of medicine, Shahnaz was aware that the COVID-19 posed a higher risk only to patients with pre-existing medical conditions or compromised immunity..
“I was sure of recovery as I do not have any medical problems. But with every sample of mine that returned positive for coronavirus from Pune, I was scared wondering if my parents had contracted it from me. They are elderly people and the virus would have a dangerous effect on them,” she recalls.
At the fag end of the 25-days in isolation, there was reason for Shahnaz and everyone else around her to smile. The 20-year-old’s 10th and 11th blood sample tested negative for the virus, confirming that she has finally, fully recovered from the disease. On Saturday, Shahnaz was dropped back to her house in Thrissur where she is in home isolation until March 1. With this, all three patients in Kerala who tested positive for coronavirus in India, have full recovered.
“Since my return from Wuhan, I have not seen the outside of the hospital and my house. I have not met any people apart from doctors and my parents. I am not sure if I would face social isolation. But for now, I am happy just being back home,” she adds.
Shahnaz and her Malayali classmates also plan to return to Wuhan to complete their course, once the outbreak dies down and the city’s lock-down is eased. However, the 20-year-old is determined to become a doctor and come back to serve her home state.
“Kerala’s public health system inspires me. Seeing the level of preparedness the health personnel have and how they fearlessly tackle any health adversity from Nipah to coronavirus, makes me want to become a part of this inspiring system. I want to give back to all the people who prayed for my swift recovery,” she says.
*Name changed to protect identity