Coronavirus: What did it mean to be an ambulance driver during May?

Around 10 a.m., he had to ferry a COVID-positive person to a hospital for admission. The man’s middle-aged wife and a nurse were with him in the ambulance.

“The events that unfolded through the next six to seven hours are something no one should go through,” says 35-year-old Murugan, an ambulance driver with Robin and Robin Health Care.

The patient’s oxygen level had dropped to a critical point — and one could almost sense his heart thumping hard. It was a harrowing time for the caregivers, as they went from hospital to hospital looking for admission.

“We had visited four hospitals in vain,” says Murugan.

The wait at each hospital was agonising. “By 1 p.m. the oxygen cylinder in the ambulance had emptied. Fortunately, there was a spare one that could be pressed into service.”

An ambulance driver for more than 10 years, Murugan has seen many critically-ill oscillate between life and death, during that trip to the hospital.

And over the years, Murugan says, he has learnt how to offer the patient’s family some solace through words of encouragement.

“The patient’s wife was panicking and the least we could do was assure her that we would be with her till she finds a hospital bed for her husband,” says Murugan, adding that a small private hospital gave the man admission.

“During the pandemic, an average trip takes two to three hours. This one took six painful hours and I tried hard to stay positive as I drove along,” he says.

It has been trying times for many ambulance drivers ever since the pandemic began. A majority of them have discovered the necessity of multi-tasking in such situations. Some of them not only transport the dead from the mortuary to a crematorium or cemetery but have also learnt to perform the last rites.

Some families would do with a bit of counselling. They might even require some guidance through procedures followed at crematoria and hospitals.

Mental health

For the last one month, R. Rajesh and his 10-member team at RG Ambulance Service have not visited their homes, as the demands of the work have caused them to camp at their small office in Villivakkam. He discloses that the agony of transporting the dead has taken a toll on them and being together brings them some solace.

“It was a conscious decision to help as many people as you can as an ambulance driver during these times; and also to make sure that we do not spread the infection to our family members. We take all precautions, but there is always an added possibility to factor in,” says Rajesh, who has six ambulance-cum-hearse vehicles pressed into service.

“It is not only a job to us, but also a service we are rendering people,” says Rajesh.

“Lakshmi is our support staff who attends to calls, including those that come in past mid-night, and passes on the information so that the work is shared. At the height of the second wave, at a maximum, one driver could take up two cases,” says Rajesh, who has also been attending to requests from Mokshadwara Trust that ensures the dead get a decent farewell.

He reveals that in mid-May, the wait at the crematorium was agonising, as finding a space and conducting the last rites would take eight to nine hours.

“You are assisting anguished families hit by COVID-19 or you are alone with families calling you for constant updates — either way, you are left drained,” says Rajesh.

In the last few months, the siren of the ambulances so persistent, and the smell of death so pervasive that taking a break has been next-to-impossible.

“During pre-COVID days, once in three months, we would go on a vacation to forget the sights and sounds that were part of our workday lives, but it has not happened in the last 14 months,” says A. Saleem, founder of Jeeva Shanthi Trust, a non-profit based in Coimbatore that cremates unclaimed bodies including those of accident victims.

The Trust has been overwhelmed by the number of people it has had to cremate last month.

“What we usually do in one year, we handled in May alone — around 300 bodies,” says Saleem, who has 50 young volunteers, most of them in their 30s, that take up all kinds of work.

What motivates these drivers to continue saving lives or transporting the dead?

Says Saleem, “There’s a mother, a sister, a brother… that we see in every dead we transport and that God will take care of our families even if we were to succumb to the virus.”

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