Siblings, oceans apart, support each other as medics on the COVID-19 frontlines

Sonal Chandratre, 42, a pediatric endocrinologist, is part of a team that is rolling out vaccines in northcentral Wisconsin, and responsible for signing vaccine orders for the region.

Meanwhile, half a world away, Sonal Chandratre’s brother, Sameer Chandratre, 50, is a pulmonologist at his own clinic and also at Shatabdi Hospital in Nashik, in India’s northwest Maharashtra state. As president of the India Medical Association, he works with doctors on the COVID-19 response, from vaccine guidelines to addressing challenges of oxygen shortages.

For Sonal and Sameer, despite the physical distance, they’ve leaned on each other to get through the most trying year of their lives. Their virtual relationship has become a lifeline during the pandemic — literally. (They also have a middle brother who is a pediatric neurologist in Ajman in the United Arab Emirates.)

As siblings, they tease each other about who is busier and who is doing more. Still, they’re very close, talking and texting all the time about Sonal’s two young children, COVID-19, and their parents.

“I think the most important thing in life is having each other together,” Sameer said.

Around the globe, the pandemic has stretched health workers thin. It has put many to the test in unimaginable ways, with limited and often scarce resources. A study of intensive care unit staff in the U.K. found that nearly half developed symptoms of PTSD and anxiety during the pandemic.

Siblings Sonal and Sameer Chandratre speak to each other duirng a Zoom intervew with The World. | (Elana Gordon/Courtesy The World)

A bout with COVID-19

Sameer describes the coronavirus situation in India lately as a war that no one can escape, with oxygen shortages and rationing, and friends and family directly reaching out to him for medical advice and help.

Sameer said that almost all health workers in Nashik have gotten at least one shot of the vaccine now. When India’s vaccination drive started for health care workers, nearly 50 percent of doctors had already been infected. The general population is still facing shortages.

The head of the country’s main vaccine manufacturer, the Serum Institute, told the Financial Times this week that shortages could last for months. Only 30 million people have completed two doses.

“It’s a testing time for everyone,” he said. “We are facing the worst second wave of the pandemic.”

India has experienced more than 200,000 deaths, which many believe to be an undercount, and upward of 20 million infections. Daily case counts just this week have topped 350,000, prompting desperate calls for more aid and action.

The tragedies mean that “the lives of every doctor, every nurse, every health care worker is going to change for a lifetime,” Sameer said.

It was last spring when the pandemic really hit home for the siblings. Sameer got COVID-19.

He was one of the first doctors in Nashik to come down with it, he said. He and several others were exposed during a chest operation on a patient they didn’t realize was infected.

Sameer has asthma. He said his health took a serious dive in quarantine in the hospital. Some 8,000 miles away, Sonal came to his bedside virtually through their smartphones, becoming his doctor, checking on him, his vitals, everything.

They hadn’t had a chance to see each other in years because of Sonal’s work visa status.

“Even if you were sleeping. I was still on [the phone]. I was looking at your saturations,” she told Sameer in a joint interview with The World. “I used to work during the day and I used to be up the whole night being with him. So, literally the phone was with him.”

Sameer thought this could be the end. In that moment, Sonal told him to make a diary, to think about his fears and hopes, what he wants to see and do in life. It’s something she has done over the years to get through her own isolation in the U.S.

Sameer started to write, and he said it helped him see more clearly the power of their bond, and his responsibility to care for their parents, as the eldest brother. Sameer recovered, but moved out from his parents’ house so he wouldn’t risk exposing them. They’ve lost other family members.

“I don’t know how to say this, but [you] cannot spend time grieving because you’re working,” Sonal said. “It’s this vacuum.”

The fight against COVID-19 in Wisconsin

At more than half a million deaths and more than 30 million infections, a global record, the U.S. has been a cautionary tale since the start of the pandemic. Now, the high surges are subsiding as vaccinations get underway.

In Wisconsin, Sonal is in the thick of that region’s vaccine efforts.

“The vaccine drive is going very well,” said Sonal, who serves as the regional medical director of primary and specialty care with the Ascension medical group at Primary Care-North in Stevens Point, Wisconsin.

“We had our surge from September to October, and now we’re facing a second wave.”

In her county of Portage, cumulative infections have totaled about 7,000.

Wisconsin has experienced about 7,500 deaths.

All of this pales in comparison to her brother’s situation, but the unknowns of vaccine uptake, and the future impact on children weigh on her, especially as a pediatrician.

Sameer choked up talking about his little sister: “We are very proud of her, that she’s away from us and she’s managing everything.”

Sonal teared up, too. She refers to Sameer as dada, or “older brother” in Hindi. Sonal has had her own set of personal challenges during the pandemic.

For one, Sonal has diabetes, which could put her at higher risk for COVID-19 complications. She worries about the possibility that she could get COVID-19.

“I think I have become pretty much immune to the fact, like dada said, about the fear aspect. I only count my days in terms of present,” she said.

She also lives with the added uncertainty that if she or her husband, who’s also a doctor, got sick — if they couldn’t work — they’d have to uproot their family, their two young kids, and leave the country.

It’s a precarious situation that thousands of immigrant doctors in the U.S. face.

Amid the tragedies and the day-to-day risks, the siblings’ regular conversations with one another are helping them get through.

“Even that five minutes of discussion or talk or that positive reinforcement boosts your mental health and makes you feel loved and supported,” Sonal said.

“We were put into tough situations during this past year and a half, and this has made us believe even more [in] what we stood up for.”

This article originally appeared at The World. Follow them on Twitter.


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