To serve with love

Posted by Sangeeta Isvaran, Chennai

The phone rang, jerking me awake, my drooly cheek stuck to the desk!!! As was the norm in the height of the second wave of COVID, we volunteers slept in snatches between desperate phone calls for hospital beds, oxygen, medication, ambulances. 

Today it was my friend Nina Subramani connecting me to a frantic appeal from an Australian man of Indian origin, to help his 93 year old mother, Rose*, who had COVID symptoms along with her 68 year old daughter and 72 year old son-in-law and all three were in bad shape. 

As a volunteer I thought my job was just to help them get an ambulance. But they sounded too weak when answering the phone and so amazing co-volunteer Sunny Natarajan and I, rushed to their home to make sure we could guide the ambulance to their place and help them in. And thought we were done. The system would take over. 

But the ambulance personnel flatly refused to take them without an ‘attender’. So we said we would follow the ambulance and make sure they reached the govt screening centre and hand them over to the doctors there. And thought we were done. The system would take over. 

But the doctor only took in the daughter and son-in-law whose O2 levels were fine and said that he wasn’t responsible to find an O2 bed for the grandmother who wasn’t doing well. We as the ‘attenders’ were. So we went with the ambulance to the nearest govt hospital to admit her. And thought we were done. The system would take over. 

But the doctors refused to do anything without a CT scan so we went in and paid for it. And thought we were done. The system would take over. 

But the CT scan personnel wouldn’t touch her, so we lifted her from the stretcher onto the table (jolting her terribly, poor thing, since none of us are trained), removed her rosaries, reassured her and got the CT scan done, waited for the result and handed it to the doctor. And thought we were done. The system would take over. 

But the doctors sent us to one ward, then another and finally when her oxygen dipped we put her back in the ambulance. At last, with the help of the ambulance personnel who knew how to work the system we found an O2 bed in a nearby govt hospital and rushed her there. Finally, we thought we were done. The system would take over. 

But the doctors wouldn’t admit her in without an attender to spend the night – in a COVID ward, on the floor, with no protective gear. They were too short staffed to take care of her. The entire COVID ward was filled with patients and their relatives taking care of them. 

That’s when I stopped – the whole day had been madness, what do people whose entire families are affected, or who don’t have any family do? The onus of care is on the ‘attender’. What if there isn’t anyone to run about and do this for the patient? The govt has to step in to help these fellow citizens. 

And there is the government order which had been passed that COVID patients must be strictly isolated, family attenders not allowed, to prevent the spread. But in spite of that, hospitals refuse to take patients without attenders. And my heart just broke for Grandma Rose. 

Through the whole day I had fellow volunteers, some who are super connected, super-super committed, weigh in and pull strings. So finally the situation was sorted at the end of the day. But what of other solitary old people or entire families who are struck by COVID??? There has the be a government intervention, a systemic change to help solitary patients or entire families in critical condition. Volunteers can only do so much and we cannot take people’s lives casually. 

I left the ward with terrible guilt in my heart, wondering if Grandma Rose would be taken care of. We had spoken to all the ward nurses, greased a few palms to get her a pillow, begged everyone to take care of her, called the Chennai COVID war room to ask them to inform the doctors of her predicament, her lonely state, did everything to make sure they assign a caregiver to her … But … In my heart of hearts, I know if it had been my mother, or father, or aunt, or friend I would have stayed. But by the end of the day I was too exhausted and just wanted the comfort of my room, my bed. I wish I had had the strength to take that last step to stay with her through the night. I see her face, faded bluish eyes, see her shaking arms stretch out pleading just to go home, and I felt such sadness … For everything. I left praying for her to recover, for myself to have more strength, for all of us to survive this terrible time – that we can hold each other in a brighter future. 

As someone who has volunteered her entire life, I feel constant guilt that what I do is never enough – but it cannot be! A few citizens cannot plug the holes in such a huge system. Yet, that doesn’t assuage the pain one feels as one is challenged every single day beyond one’s physical means, one’s emotional capacity. Every message that says, ‘Oxygen bed no longer needed, patient has passed away’ stabs the heart; every call that ends in sobbing rips you open; helping COVID patients to oxygen cylinders under makeshift tents in front of hospitals makes one deeply grateful for simply the air one breathes …

Only one thing anchors me – love! Volunteering for me is an act of deep love, I try to infuse it in my voice as I speak to frantic people on the phone; every rude doctor, nurse or ambulance driver has a backstory of exhaustion, I respect and respond to that with love; every COVID patient needs love and reassurance almost as much as they need oxygen (maybe more?). 

Grandma Rose successfully fought COVID and came home. She passed away peacefully a few weeks later, surrounded by her loved ones. Sadly, I could not meet her again though I had promised myself I would, there were too many other calls for help, especially in rural Tamil Nadu. I only spent that one day with her, yet I was witness to her deep faith. She clung to her rosary and to my hand, and I could feel her faith and love anchoring her amidst the chaos in the hospitals. I too have faith – in humanity, in our capacity to serve, in our ability to connect to a higher truth. And I have love … A boundless ocean of love. 

*Grandma Rose’s name is changed to protect her privacy. 

Do read the previous story posted by the same author : What would I put in my paint bucket?

Sangeeta, founder of the Wind Dancers Trust, is a dancer-performer who developed the Katradi method, working in marginalized, underprivileged communities using the arts in education, empowerment and conflict resolution across 30 countries. For her scholarship in the arts, she has been honored with the highest national award for young dancers – the Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar. She is a Fellow of the International Institute of Conciliation, USA. At NCF, Sangeeta works across programmes on issues of gender sensitivity, sexual harassment, conflict resolution and mental health. Read more about her work at

Cover Image: Clockcanvas
Story Images: Author

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