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New Doctors In India Are Starting Off Seeing The Worst. It's Taking A Toll

Dr. Noor Dhaliwal, 23, recently finished medical school and last month began interning at Lok Nayak Hospital in New Delhi.
Dr. Noor Dhaliwal
Dr. Noor Dhaliwal, 23, recently finished medical school and last month began interning at Lok Nayak Hospital in New Delhi.

A brand new generation of Indian doctors is just starting out in medicine in the middle of the world's worst coronavirus outbreak.

On Wednesday, the country reported just over 4,500 deaths, setting a record for more coronavirus deaths in a single day than any other country during the course of the pandemic. Its total official caseload, likely still an undercount, is now over 25 million cases.

For interns in India — entering their profession during such a heightened crisis — the unprecedented demand for doctors and number of deaths is taking an emotional toll.

"I have seen young people, some just a few years older than me, not maintaining oxygen saturation," says Noor Dhaliwal, 23, who just finished medical school in New Delhi. She is an intern at Lok Nayak Hospital, which has been treating large caseloads of COVID-19 patients during the pandemic.

"Each ward and ICU [is] ambushed with COVID positive patients and frantic relatives not being able to find a single bed," she says. "And if a bed gets empty it's usually because a patient has died."

As a medical student, Dr. Dhaliwal attended her classes online and stayed home with her family. But now, just a month into working inside a hospital, she is surrounded by death on a daily basis.

"In my ICU night shift, I saw just overnight, five or six patients dying," she says "And it's a really horrible and saddening sight."

It's even harder to see other patients in the ward losing hope when they see the deaths mounting, she adds. "They feel like that could be them any minute."

Despite entering the medical field at a time when there's no time or resources to get properly trained, Dr. Dhaliwal keeps going to work every day, eager to help even if it means learning on the fly.

In the city of Bangalore, Dr. Prakruthi Harihar, 24, is another medical intern introduced to her chosen profession at a time of profound crisis. She was excited to work with patients and deal with different cases, but she wasn't expecting it to be this stressful.

Dr. Prakruthi Harihar started working in the ER at the Vasavi Hospital in Bangladore last week.
/ Dr. Prakruthi Harihar
Dr. Prakruthi Harihar
Dr. Prakruthi Harihar started working in the ER at the Vasavi Hospital in Bangladore last week.

Now, with the final exam that would lead to her post-graduate certification delayed due to the pandemic, she has decided to partially repeat her internship year.

The pandemic became deeply personal for Dr. Harihar on her very first night of work, when she was posted in the COVID-19 intensive care unit.

"My friend's father was admitted [to] the COVID ICU. A couple of hours into my duty, he went into cardiac arrest," she says. "And we tried a lot of things, but we couldn't save him. It was actually a really bad and disturbing day for me."

It's been a year since then, and Dr. Harihar's prolonged internship now has her posted in the emergency room.

"The wards are completely full," she tells Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep. "And when the patient comes in, we have to tell them that there's no bed. And we see [them] breaking down, crying, begging."

Turning patients away means sending them to another hospital, which creates more panic and close contact to the virus along the way.

"It's really scary for the patient, but we are helpless and the patients are helpless, too," she says. She always knew that India's health care system needed help in order to tend to its large population, but she's come to understand its limitations more clearly due to the pandemic.

"I think the entire health care system is helpless right now. We need more hospitals. We need more beds. We need more oxygen cylinders. We need more drugs."

Like many other medical interns across the country, Dr. Harihar is waiting to find out when she'll be able to take her postgraduate medical exam. In the meantime, she'll keep helping out in the ER.

"Just yesterday there was this lady who was crying and she broke down in the yard and was begging for us to give her a bed. But unfortunately, everything was full."

Dr. Harihar had to turn her away. "But I came back home thinking, did she get a bed? Did she find a hospital? Is she fine?"

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Jeevika Verma
Jeevika Verma joined NPR's Morning Edition and Up First as a producer in February 2020. During her time there, she's produced a variety of stories ranging from Afghanistan peace talks, COVID surges in India and local & state elections. Verma also contributes to arts and poetry coverage for NPR's culture desk, and is always trying to get more poets on air. She leads the Morning Edition diversity council and works on DEI efforts across the network to help NPR live up to its mission.
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