Tales from Kerala’s Covid battleground: Nithin’s unsung voluntary pursuit to heal the mind

The NationWide speaks to Nithin AF, a psychologist from Thiruvananthapuram General Hospital, who completed 300 days of uninterrupted, free service helping Covid patients deal with anxiety and stress
Nithin at work in his PPE kit
Nithin at work in his PPE kitSpecial Arrangement

Globally, the Covid-19 pandemic has drawn attention to the irreplaceable roles of healthcare and other frontline workers. The recognition of healthcare workers, which included those employed in sanitation as well, has spread faster than the coronavirus. We have seen videos of people clapping and cheering from windows and front doors to thank these workers for their effort and courage in facing the Covid-19 threat in their daily work.

There were some unsung heroes as well, who worked despite lacking adequate personal protective equipment. However, their courage and determination to serve society make them just as important to the overall fight as anyone else.

In this article, The NationWide presents you one such human being, who selflessly contributes to society amidst the pandemic. Nithin AF, a psychologist, today completes 10 months since working at the General Hospital Thiruvananthapuram from March 17 last year. Despite a lack of remuneration for his service, he hasn’t taken a single off from his duty.

Nithin AF
Nithin AFSpecial Arrangement

“When I joined GH, there were only Out-Patient services, and we used to admit patients in the society pay-ward,” he says, adding that they would take swabs of suspected patients. If the results came back positive for Covid-19, then the patients would be referred to Medical College. “Towards the end of May last year, the General Hospital began to take in Covid positive patients and the number of cases increased. Later, even without having a casualty, the hospital was completely dedicated to Covid patients. We had to work continuously for hours, and at times we had to skip our lunch as well,” Nithin says. Now, the hospital is planning to handle both Covid and non-Covid patients.

Moreover, the situation at the beginning wasn’t an easy venture. Covid-19 was a new phenomenon, since even scientists were struggling to understand it fully. However, in the very beginning of the pandemic, people were least bothered about it, says Nithin, but he adds, “When they test positive, they tend to unnecessarily get tensed.” Moreover, early information about the pandemic wasn’t very comforting. “The patients usually compared their situation with visuals they saw on social media. For instance, they generally think about the mass burial that happened in Spain and other countries during the pandemic and think that they are going to face a similar situation,” he adds. So what does he do? “In general, people have a misconception that they will die from Covid-19. I help these patients by providing awareness on the situation,” he says.

Towards the end of May last year, the General Hospital began to take in Covid positive patients and the number of cases increased. Later, even without having a casualty, the hospital was completely dedicated to Covid patients. We had to work continuously for hours, and at times we had to skip our lunch as well

Nithin AF

Nithin, who is a Post Graduate in Clinical Psychology, says that we can “divide Covid-related tension into two. “The first category thinks that they will die soon, society will isolate them, they are going to suffer from post-Covid complications, and the struggle of losing a loved one to Covid-19. The second category thinks that they will not be able to work for their survival,” he says. However, his biggest challenge was comforting the people who lost a loved one. “The only option we had was to try and make them understand the real situation.”

According to him, the counselling process goes through three parts — individual counselling, group therapy, and relaxation technique. He said, “In individual counselling, I try to make them understand reality, to help them overcome anxiety, depression, and such. In certain cases, I will talk to family members of Covid patient to let them know about the patient’s situation. Earlier, when the male and female wards were on the same floor, we used to give them 10 minutes to interact with their family.”

“In group therapy, we make everyone in a ward interact with each other. It usually starts with a prayer. I used to share details about the latest update on Covid-19. Then we conduct a group session, which helps them escape the depressing mood,” Nithin said. Meanwhile, for the third phase, he would provide a preliminary exercise and three relaxation techniques — multisensory visualisation technique, JPMR technique and diaphragmatic technique. All of these are aimed at relaxing the mind as well as the body, to combat stress and anxiety, and help them sleep.

While all phases are important, Nithin adds that the situation has changed. “Now, due to the rise in cases, we are not able to do group sessions. During the initial days of the pandemic, we got enough time to meet every patient individually, but now the situation has changed. However, we do conduct a question-and-answer awareness session.”

Despite the limitations, he can do all of this thanks to his education and training. When asked how he stumbled upon psychology, Nithin says that it was accidental. “I was preparing for civil service, at the Kerala State Civil Service Academy in Pattom, when I decided to do a Master’s in Psychology. However, I ended up pursuing it as my career since the subject was very interesting. This job made me realise that one could bring order in a chaotic life. If God allows, I will continue this job till the end.” He has completed an internship at the Peroorkada Mental Health Centre under Dr Nelson KJ, who is the Chief Consultant in Psychiatry, before joining the General Hospital. Currently, he is pursuing his second Masters in Philosophy amidst his duties.

However, despite his love for it, his work could become tedious and often emotionally straining. Sharing an experience from his Covid duties, he says, “Once, we had admitted a Covid patient, who had returned from abroad, where he had been working since 1990. He only used to come home occasionally and had to miss his sister’s marriage. His brother-in-law was working in one of the gulf countries, and they were not able to see each other whenever they visited. However, they shared a very good bond through video calls and messages. The brother-in-law was diagnosed with cancer and was admitted after his situation worsened. The patient decided to visit his brother-in-law but tested positive for Covid-19 when he landed in Kerala in June 2020. On the fifth day, he learnt that his brother-in-law died from cancer. I struggled a lot while helping him to overcome the situation.”

Due to the rise in cases, they are not able to do group sessions. During the initial days of the pandemic, they had enough time to meet every patient individually, but now the situation has changed.

The work is not easy and despite the struggles and hardships, Nithin chose to work voluntarily, as he wanted to “have a meaningful and purpose-oriented result”. “I believe that providing solace to someone is the biggest thing one can ever do. Even though I have my share of worries, the only driving force in life is my work. I am happy whenever I can help a person to cope with the current situation. I believe in God and only a purpose-oriented deed can make a meaningful change and that’s why I chose this meaningful path,” he adds.

He says that his efforts are often appreciated. “My patients always acknowledge my efforts and say that it helped them overcome their disease. These words make me happy and it encourages me to go ahead.” However, it isn’t often enough. Nithin says that he has no honest idea about how long he is planning to continue his service. “Even though I am going through a difficult phase of my life, my job as a psychologist is beautiful. I have completed 300 working days at the GH. I even worked on Onam and Christmas holidays. Even though I am currently working voluntarily, I expect that the government would provide a salaried job. I sincerely want to continue my career as a psychologist and I believe that I can only do so with the government’s support.”

He adds that his family also supports him as much as they can. His father is a retired overseer in KSEB, his mother a housewife, and his younger brother is doing his final year MBBS at Kozhikode. “They support me in every way they can. However, my parents want me to get a salaried job and settle down. They don’t care much about the free service that I am doing and that makes me sad at times. None of that is to say that they are not supporting me. I feel content with whatever comes my way right now,” says Nithin.

Much like many others, 2020 wasn’t an easy year for him. “In 2020, I had personally faced many challenges. However, it was a turning point in my life as I was able to work at the General Hospital. Even though I was not able to crack the Civil Service Exam, I was able to incorporate what I learned at that time while counselling many patients, especially during group and class sessions,” he says. While he is not very sure about 2021, he trusts God and hopes for the best. “For me, the priorities are getting into a salaried job and settle down. I am also planning and preparing to do my higher studies in Clinical Psychology.”

While a vaccine provides hope to the entire world, we mustn’t forget that it was the combined efforts of many, including people like Nithin, who helped provide support and care to a struggling society. While lighting diyas and beating plates are symbolic gestures, they do nothing to provide for the welfare of the people who have voluntarily sacrificed their time and effort for the benefit of others.

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