NEW DELHI: Little everyday encounters with her patients give Dr Prarthna a sense of hope. “One day, an old patient in the Covid ward put his hand on my head, to bless me, when I told him he was recovering and would soon be fine,” she says, off her shift at New Delhi’s Guru Teg Bahadur hospital.

It’s little things like this that give “the greatest satisfaction.”

The pandemic has given doctors no respite. Whatever they are going through personally, their duty puts them on the frontlines. For over a year now they have worked long hours to fight this mismanaged pandemic, putting their lives and their families’ at risk.

A recent study by the Indian Medical Association shows that 126 doctors have died of Covid this year alone, with four prominent doctors succumbing to the virus in Delhi this week.

Trying their best to save lives, physicians and paramedics feel helpless due to the underprovision of resources. Even before the second wave the number of people falling sick and being brought to tertiary care long ago exceeded the supply of facilities.

“It has been a tornado of emotions, but one can only tolerate so much death and misery. It is as if mourning and denial have become the go-to feelings for comfort,” says Dr. Nishtha Handa, who works at the Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital.

She says serious damage has been done to the minds of people working at the frontline.

“My shift begins at 8 in the morning. On my way to the hospital, the mind rambles around how I am going to gather the strength to reveal the loss of loved ones to their families,” says Dr Handa.

Besides the lack of adequate staff, doctors and health workers are getting exposed to the virus daily with many ultimately succumbing. “It’s usually a 24-hour duty after which we get a day or two off, that too depending on the availability of doctors,” says Dr Romil Lotta, a junior resident at the Safdarjung Hospital.

“It’s not even just about time, but the average Indian doctor has been overworked since forever. You look at any government hospital’s emergency and you will find it hard to secure yourself a place to stand even,” says Dr Handa.

Long working hours wearing PPE kits during the summer bring their own challenges, leading to suffocation, dehydration, dizziness with some doctors even falling faint.

“Once I was almost breathless and a patient nearby asked me ‘Ma’am, kya hua, apko sans kyun chadh rahi hai?’ What happened, why are you out of breath?” Dr Prarthna recalls. She says that in a duty shift of six hours, almost four are spent taking rounds in the red zone.

Doctors treating patients at Covid facilities have avoided staying with their families to protect them from the infection. Dr Lotta lives in the same city as his parents, but hasn’t been able to meet them as he is staying inside the quarantine facility provided by the government.

When they talk, “my mother usually cries and insists on me resigning,” he says.

What keeps these doctors going? “The enthusiasm to be able to help people keeps me going the entire day,” says Dr Lotta. Besides daily duty, “which can often last for 24 hours at a stretch”, he has to handle hundreds of calls and messages from relatives and friends asking for help.

“Seeing so much chaos everywhere in the society, when everyone is so helpless, if there’s something we can do to make things a little better, then why not do it?” asks Dr Prarthna. Another of her patients after recovering wrote a letter to the staff expressing his gratitude. They have pasted it on the wall as a source of encouragement.

For others like Dr Handa, “What keeps me going during such a crisis is that there is no choice.”

Dr Prarthna at the GTB Hospital

Dr Lotta at the Safdarjung Hospital

A birthday party for Dr Lotta