“I can do it with my eyes closed now. I can tell you what medicine is placed where, which doctor comes in when, and where my patients are at all times,” Leelamma says with a smile.
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Leelamma, the nurse staff-in charge at the St. John’s Medical College and Hospital in the Bengaluru hails from Kottayam. She has spent 22 years of her career here after stints in Assam and Saudi Arabia. Her faded, yet neatly pressed, white gown speaks of her longevity in service.
This time around, she has a new challenge: handling panic. “Everyone with a fever is suddenly scared that it could be Nipah,” she says. Her colleagues are especially wary after the disease recently claimed the life of a Kozhikode nurse, Lini.
As she speaks, she walks to the rows of cupboards labelled alphabetically and, almost, without looking hands out two strips of pills to another nurse.
“Panic is the most difficult thing to control during epidemics,” says Leelamma, who has served through outbreaks of swine flu, chikungunya and dengue throughout her career.
She recalls her experience in June 2016, when dengue struck hard and things got messy in the city. “The hospital was brimming with patients who all thought they had contracted the disease,” she says. “This scared the nurses too!”
Nurses can’t afford to panic, however. For, it’s not just their lives, but the patients’ as well, that’s at stake. The pay is low, and the job is fraught with risks, she adds. “This is what we’re trained to do. Keeping calm and composed is an important part of the job.”
For such high-risk epidemics, all nurses are given face masks and gloves. For those treating such a patient, added precautions must be taken. “The nurse has to ensure that she does not come in direct contact with the patient’s bodily fluids without taking precautions. She must also ensure that she washes her hands or at least uses sanitizers all the time,” says Leelamma.
In cases like nurse Lini, the infection could have been contracted by her before she knew it was fatal. “We don’t know what the infection is, till it’s detected. With Nipah, its symptoms are similar to dengue and other such diseases, so the only solution is to be cautious,” she says.
In the off-chance that a nurse contracts an infection, the hospital gives her free treatment for the same. “The hospital takes responsibility and gives her treatment and compensation. In the case of nurse Lini, the government promised a government job to her husband and Rs.10 lakhs each to her two children as compensation,” she says.
A ‘typical day’ in the life of a nurse
Leelamma’s day starts at around 5 am. She wakes up to make breakfast and pack lunch for her two children, after which she has to get dressed and be at the hospital before 8 am. Now, her shifts are eight hours long, but as a junior nurse, the shifts would sometimes extend to 12 hours. “I am home by around 5 O’clock nowadays, and am able to spend the evening with the kids, help them with homework and make them dinner.
Technology has changed the profession, believes Leelamma. “We were taught to do everything. But now, there are machines, even for something as simple as checking someone’s blood pressure,” she says.
Staying strong amid challenges
Leelamma was a “strong, independent woman” even before it became common parlance to call someone that. She moved to Tinsukia in Assam to study nursing all the way from Kerala in the 1970’s. “My parents believed they were doing a service through me and so, supported my choice,” she says. It was at a time when girls were not even allowed to go to school, let alone travel across the country to pursue a career in nursing.
There, she met and married a man who was most supportive of her and even became a pharmacist so he could move wherever work took her. “He passed away last year and I got so lonely after his death as we never had children,” she says, “but see, God always has a plan. My sister passed away only a few months after and her two teenage children came to live with me. Now I have two teenagers!”
When it was just her and her husband, they lived in several rented houses in the area around the hospital. However, recognising her seniority, the hospital gave her a staff quarters nine years ago. “Now, I and my children live in there. The gated community is also safe for them to play around,” she says.
As the clock inches closer to lunch, the crowd at the out-patient department, where she is stationed today, decreases. “We don’t really have a lunchtime,” she says,” it is just whatever we can eat quickly, god forbid an emergency cuts it shorter.”
An overlooked part of a nurse’s job is her coordination with a doctor. They need to be in-sync every step of the way. “Sometimes, doctors can get stressed. We need to understand how they feel and try to not be too shaken by their reactions,” she says, “we don’t get as much credit as we need to.”
How much are nurses paid?
Pay patterns have changed drastically since she first became a nurse. “Junior nurses, whose age is my experience, come and demand a certain salary because they believe they deserve it. We didn’t have that kind of guts,” she says.
Net salary a junior level nurse receives is around Rs.25,000 in metro cities like Bengaluru, and less in other smaller cities. ESI-Provident Fund deductions are about Rs.3000 a month. The nurse and her family can also avail free basic medical treatment at the hospital. In hospitals like St Johns, an annual hike of at least 30 per cent is given, but not in all hospitals. In government hospitals pay and hikes are lesser.
The most rewarding part of their job, says Leelamma, is when patients remember them even after years. “When I was in the gynaecology department nine years ago, a woman from Andhra [Pradesh] was admitted for months,” she recalls. They soon became friends. “Last month, she came back for some tests and asked for me. It felt so nice.”
Her job, however, doesn’t always allow for such moments. The nurses are taught in their basic protocol about how close they can get with a patient. “Only we know the difficulty of not being able to stop ourselves from getting attached. We are also humans,” she rues.
People do not realise it, but a nurse’s job also involves tough decision-making. “Once, a woman wanted me to sit with her and talk to her as she was alone. Her husband had recently passed away and she was very sad. I couldn’t spend much time with her as there was another emergency patient to tend to,” she recalls. “It was hard for me to tell her I had to go, but duty calls.”