Dr Sushmita Roy Chowdhury, the 48-year-old five-foot nothing principal pulmonologist heading a six-member team at the Apollo Hospital in Kolkata, is known as Dr Napoleon in the wards. She can’t recall how she got the nickname, if it was her height, confidence or the department’s string of success stories in the Covid battle. “I don’t know why I ended up with Napoleon,” she says. “Covid is a war and we want to emerge winners. So we named ourselves after war heroes. So we have an Alexander (Dr Arpit Kapur), even a Brother Hitler and a Helen of Troy among the nurses,” says Sushmita, chuckling.
As she stands in her oversized PPE overalls, her nametag flashing Dr Napoleon, even the patients struggling with their breath can’t help but manage a feeble smile. It helps take their mind off the overpowering smell of iodoform and sanitisers.
Raised in an army family (her father was a doctor and mother a nurse) who had served in the 1965 India-Pakistan war, Sushmita was initially hesitant about confiding her Covid ward anxieties at home. But her 79-year-old mother put her fears to rest. “She told me not to worry and go ahead as she would do fine,” Sushmita recalls. “Six and a half weeks in the thick of battle and I still get the same encouragement from her. We talk, keeping a minimum of five feet distance between us before I retire to my isolation hole at home.” For more than a month now, Sushmita has been having conversations with her 17-year-old daughter more on the mobile phone, even though they live under the same roof.
The doctor’s sole focus now is to “liberate” her 15-odd patients from the deadly virus and send them home. It is difficult, sometimes the odds are stacked against them and her six-member team has to bring all their years of experience into play. “It’s a helpless situation at times, seeing patients deteriorating. Putting patients on ventilator is the most difficult choice for us. Once critical, Covid patients go downhill fast, making even the best of warriors feel helpless,” says Sushmita.
But there are moments of triumph too. “What happens with Covid patients is that they lose their sense of smell and taste. Making patients eat is a herculean task. We have to keep on innovating to make them have a healthy diet. Of course, nurse Helen of Troy is with us, using all her charms to make the most unpalatable food go down,” she chortles.
Once in the Covid ward, her six- to eight-hour shift goes by all too fast. “Finally, it is all about team work. The six of us in the team are equal partners in this effort, we bring all our sweat, labour and medical acumen into getting the patients to recover,” says Sushmita, as she adjusts her goggles while issuing commands to her fellow soldiers—the nurses in the ward, including Helen of Troy.