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A trickle of sweat dipped between her scapulae. It swayed indecisive, then travelled sinuously down the length of her furrow. It met its deadline in her scrub pants. Merged into its brethren already trapped in her hemline. The once sky-blue hemline would be now mottled dark blue. It would leave a rumpled, withered imprint all around her waist when she eventually undressed. When she achieved liberation from this stifling, 3-layered prison of mask, goggle and faceshield. That delicious freedom was still 7 long hours away. She had just joined her 7-hour shift in the ICU. T’was the Summer 2020.

            A pen held in the awkward shrouds of multiple gloves. A 5-rupees pen, strictly, since it would need be discarded after her shift. Safety’s sake. Peering past the foggy barrier of her goggles, she bent upon her notes. Blood counts, ECG, spO2, Ferritin. All checked. Stacking her files in a neat pile, she rose. Her layers of plastic wear crackled with every movement.

            She lumbered across from bed to bed. Checking for vitals. Alert for aberration. Trained for danger. Aware of the risk she undertook.

            She was used to multiple layers of clothing since childhood. She was often asked, “Don’t you feel suffocated?” Now they were all bundled up. Men and women. Layers upon layers upon layers. Covid was a great leveler. It had smacked all of humanity into 3 discrete classes. The dead. The living. The saviors.

            She had made a precise list of ‘Do nots’ before starting her 7-hour stint. Don’t drink a drop of water. Don’t eat a morsel of food. Don’t pee. Don’t itch.

            The first two were second nature to her. Every year for an entire holy month, she undertook the rigorous ritual with her brethren. It was a testament of her willpower.

            The 3rd on her list was torture. She boiled it down to a scientific fact. 1 ml of urine produced per minute. 7 hours = 420 minutes. Chaar sou bees. Only.

            She emptied her bladder precisely 5 minutes before getting into her PPE. Squeezed down to the last drop. Thereafter, no input= no output. The trick was not to even think of peeing. Damn! She felt a tumulescence in her bladder. An immediate urge. Divert, divert, divert the mind, she hyperventilated.

            She threw up her head to gaze at the walls of the ward. The paint was shedding in hesitant patches. Fungus darkened one corner. The rusty hinges.  Her colleagues in their corporate hospitals would roll their eyes when she carefully counted the coins back from the taxi driver. BMC mentality. Their lips would curl in mirth when she diligently switched off the fan and bulb when exiting a room. BMC mentality.

Not anymore. Her BMC hospital was now the cynosure of all eyes in the Covid war. It was the oasis of Life in the heart of the mightiest and busiest city of India. Her very own B.Y.L Nair hospital. Now, their eyes widened in awe and respect when they learnt where she worked. She passed a proud, possessive palm down her scrub. Not mere uniform, it was her armour. Her Superwoman cape.

She smiled at the naked walls. No, there would be no medal for her. No TV interview. No badge of honor. Nothing except the most precious gift – the knowledge that she had saved lives.

The strap of her lingerie stabbed into her skin. Her nose felt greasy. Exactly where the sweat met her spine, she felt an itch erupt. She groaned silently. Can’t afford an itch. Bcos one that can’t be scratched is pure hell.

She moved to the next bed. Checked the vitals. Ignore the itch. This patient needed to be flopped onto his belly. Call the staff nurse. Heave. Turn. Ignore the itch.

Turning to the next patient, her uterus convulsed. A dull ache crawled across her belly. A gush of sticky fluid. Damn! It wasn’t due till next week. How did it start today, this blood monthly ritual? Must be the stress. It could play havoc with hormones. She blinked in desperation at the wall clock. 300 more minutes. Only 5 hours more. She hoped the stain didn’t percolate through her Superwoman cape.

She had reached the end of the ward. The last and best bed. A quick glance at the patient’s name. Oh! She knew this name well. The one who surrounded himself with a battalion of commandos. Z security. Ensconced in which cordon, he believed himself immortal. Well, Covid had certainly ripped apart that flimsy cordon.

He who clenched his fists and dictated who wore what and who ate what. He who flew a chartered flight to USA everytime he sneezed. He who declared that women who bled every month shouldn’t be permitted to enter holy places.

She gazed down at him. Should I prod him awake and tell him I’m bleeding right now? Would he permit me to save his life? Or would his belief shatter on the verge of death?

His chest heaved. Fell up and down in uneven gasps. A rattlesnake gurgling in his chest. His immortality at the mercy of a tiny virus.

Should I tell him?

Her gloved hand patted him awake. Eyelids fluttered open. Eyes blank in gloom. Eyes wide in terror.

And just as suddenly, she wasn’t just the doctor. Not just a savior. Not just a warrior shielding him from death. Much, much higher. She was a mother nursing a sick child.She thought, ‘Power does not justify evil. Power is not virtue. Virtue is that which exists despite power.’

She bent down. Whispered, “Don’t give up. We will survive this. Together.”

Because humanity was her only religion. Her duty was her only holy hymn.