Life in a dementia care centre during India’s second COVID-19 wave: Part three

In this four part series, Senju Joseph, a carer at the Dementia Respite care centre in Thrissur, India, documents his experience of navigating the catastrophic second COVID-19 wave.

This is the third blog in a four part series from Senju Joseph, who is based in India and works at the Dementia Respite care centre in the city of Thrissur. In this series, Senju documents his first-hand experience of working in a dementia care facility during the ongoing spread of the COVID-19 Delta variant.

I cannot complain as the Health Department has been handling more casualties than ever before and the healthcare staff are having a tough time attending to the number of emergencies with less staff. But it is difficult.

Following our second round of tests, the results came back, and we all tested positive for COVID-19 apart from one resident. We were now in a situation where 20 of us were infected, including some very vulnerable adults with complex needs.

The families started to get back to me about the difficulty of getting hospital admissions for their loved ones. Each one requested for us to look after them in our centre itself, as they trusted us to do the best for their family members. Some of them told me to look after myself and my family first, as their parents had already lived much of their lives and I should consider our health and wellbeing as a priority.

At that point, I decided I had to change the centre into a COVID-19 ward and treat our residents and ourselves here, as much help wasn’t available in the outside world.

I spoke to the Health Department and insisted that I must bring back two of our staff even though they had tested positive. The staff agreed to come back to the centre, so we arranged for an ambulance to pick them up.

By the end of day 4, we had 1 nurse, 3 carers and a cook on board. None of them were fit but they were all willing to help our dear residents fight back against this pandemic.

During this time, I was beginning to feel worried about Priya and Austin not getting the attention and time they needed. I had not told our family of the situation, as I knew they would be worried with Priya being pregnant. They would likely ask me to take her home which would mean I would have to leave the centre.

The next 10 days ended up being particularly difficult. We experienced many scenarios of patients struggling, staff getting weak due to ill health, families of staff members requesting them to come back home and isolate with rest. However, we did pass through all of these complex emotions and physical and mental challenges.

On Day 14, we arranged for another test. The results came through later that evening. Everyone tested negative apart from one resident.

It was a big relief. We had been struggling for two weeks, waiting for this moment. Feeling so relieved that evening, staff started calling their families to tell them the good news.

Despite the good news, the staff and I spoke about the possibility of post-Covid symptoms and that our fight against the virus was not yet finished. I spoke to family members of every resident, updating them and explaining our post-Covid plans going forward.

That night, as we were still carrying on checking residents’ vitals, one of our residents  began to show post-Covid symptoms: shortness of breath, low oxygen saturation levels, high blood pressure… While we were en route to the hospital, we informed the family of what was happening, but it was too late and he didn’t make it.

The family met us at the hospital. Everyone was still following COVID-19 protocol, even though we had all tested negative earlier in the day. We all felt so defeated that it had come to this after all we had done in the last two weeks.

Unfortunately, this would not be the end of it. On Day 16, we isolated another resident (AR)who tested positive. She was temporarily rehoused in a separate room with one carer. Initially, she was doing fine but on the second night, she started to struggle. AR needed oxygen but our oxygen supplies were nearly finished and I could only get oxygen the next day.

I spoke to the Health Department and they said the only option was to take AR to Medical College Hospital. I knew very well that the situation there was already bad, but I didn’t have any other alternative if I wanted to try and save her life.

I took her to the hospital with another staff member. On arrival, I came to realise that the situation was worse than what I had anticipated. There were no beds and so we were taken to the hospital’s COVID-19 ward, which had over 100 positive COVID-19 patients.

Because of the ward’s environment, despite being able to secure AR a bed, AR was shouting and screaming, refusing to wear a mask and generally very unsettled. We were soon informed that the only way to stay there overnight, was to stay on the floor, near the staff room. There would be no mattress.

With more than 100 patients on the ward and each of them on oxygen, we saw the real face of the pandemic. Medical staff were running, alerted by critical cases happening every minute. They did not have the time or manpower to come to each and every person. They were doing an amazing job, with what they were able to do, but a person living with dementia who needed extra attention and care wouldn’t have a chance.

* The initials of the Dementia Respite care centre residents have been changed to protect their identity.

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