Back in early March 2020, when India was on edge about coronavirus making inroads, a 33-year-old Mumbai nurse Chandini Mulukutla was on her way to Visakhapatnam, her native place. She had a four-month-old and a six-year-old in tow. An employee of the Wockhardt Group of Hospitals, Chandini was on maternity leave, due to join work in May.
But in the days to come, the country went into a lockdown, stranding Chandini and her family in Vizag at her aunt’s house. And just like that, a 10-day trip became a two-month-long ordeal.
Why ordeal you ask?
Chandini happens to be an Infection Control Nurse, a job she trained hard for. And at the time when the country needed her services the most, she was incapacitated by the lockdown.
“You see, I was optimistic that the lockdown will lift in one or two weeks’ time. But then it went on for months,” she says ruefully.
“COVID-19 is a new disease. It’s something we hadn’t seen before. So as an infection control nurse, I had to be there in Mumbai for my colleagues to teach them the proper protocol of dealing with communicable diseases.”
Chandini spent the next two months patiently hoping for transport services to resume. “My employers had reposed trust in me, given me a job. I had to be there to support them to train people to work in the COVID ward,” she said.
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Chandini will eventually end up taking a 1,500-kilometre journey, fraught by many challenges, back to Mumbai. At every step, a single thought kept motivating: She wanted to join the nation’s fight against the pandemic.
The long journey to Mumbai
To say that the journey was arduous is an understatement. The first hurdle was securing permission to undertake the journey. Even for a COVID warrior, the process was not going to be an easy one.
“A lady constable called to confirm that I could travel. But she had a set of conditions. I could only travel in a four-wheeler with three other people,” she said.
The next issue was finding a willing driver to go to Mumbai, which was swarming with COVID cases in the early days. “Once they learnt the trip was to Mumbai, they would back out. Eventually, I found a kind man who agreed after understanding my situation,” Chandini said.
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It doesn’t end there. She had to first make a trip to Hyderabad to pick up her mother-in-law, a cancer patient. “The journey ahead would become a problem. Once we picked up my mother-in-law, there were more than three people in a car,” she recalled. “Luckily, we were prepared. We were advised by the authorities to hide one of the children.”
Like an episode right out of an espionage movie, Chandini and her mother-in-law were successful in evading authorities in the first checkpoint. But there were 40 to 50 more to go!
“My son, who is very mischievous, blurted out a few times to the officers that there was a baby in the car.”
“Some of them knew the purpose behind my journey. So they looked the other way and let me pass. But others were far more strict,” she said.
Eventually, they made it to Mumbai, and Chandini soon resumed her duties at Wockhardt Hospital. “It’s a miracle, and God’s grace that we reached safely back to Mumbai,” she emphasised.
A sturdy support system
“A lot of healthcare workers were testing positive. I thought what if I was next? Who will take care of my children?” she rued.
Although her family was initially concerned about her safety, they eventually supported her — especially her mother-in-law and her husband. “They said, if you test positive, we will take good care of the children till you get better,” Chandini added.
She’s also effusive in her praise for her employer Wockhardt. “At a time when most hospitals were cost-cutting, firing administrative nurses, my department head encouraged me to return as they needed my help,” she said. That was all the motivation she needed.
Following her passion
After completing her BSc and MSc in nursing, Chandini moved to Mumbai with her husband six years ago.
Was nursing something she always wanted to do?
“Yes,” she said, “and my mom is my role model.” Chandini grew up observing her mother, a senior staff nurse working with the Singareni Collieries Company Limited under the central government. So she was clear about her choice of profession.
“I remember how happy my mom felt when she received gratitude and blessings from the patients.”
Having seen my own share of hospitalisations at a young age, I told Chandini my own reverence for nurses and their innate compassion.
I also mentioned her how my mother would chat up nurses in Malayalam, confident that they will also respond in the same language.
“I always felt more comfortable telling the nurses about my problems; the doctors, not so much,” I told her.
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“Not everyone can become a nurse. You need the zeal to do good work and the courage to fight diseases like COVID-19,” she pointed out very matter-of-factly, and I agreed.
As we parted, Chandini shared some advice for India after having seen the pandemic from close quarters: “I would tell every Indian to not get careless. They should follow proper protocol, wear masks and practice hand washing. We can’t afford to be casual even at this point.”