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On my first day of Covid ICU duty, I bled in my PPE. Periods happen, even in a pandemic

On Menstrual Hygiene Day, we can’t ignore millions of Indian women and girls who still don’t have access to safe sanitation — even in Covid pandemic and lockdown.

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My first Covid-19 ICU duty was on 17 May in Rohtak, a day I will never forget. It was the first day I looked after patients of the pandemic, while bleeding through my personal protective equipment or PPE.

I bled freely that day, though not out of compulsion but by choice. I belong to the privileged strata of society where I never had to think about safely managing my periods. But that day, I felt what it was like to be in the shoes of women who do not have access to sanitary napkins or tampons or clean alternatives. What better day to share my story than on Menstrual Hygiene Day.

A disclaimer first: If a female doctor can’t talk comfortably about her periods, how can we expect society to? For those who think talking about this is too much of a taboo in a pandemic, please feel free to move on with your blissful lives, wrapped in a black plastic bag.

Also read: From unpaid domestic care work to menstrual hygiene – Covid’s double whammy for Indian women

Donning and doffing

I am a doctor, training to be a specialist in Anaesthesiology. For us, on the frontline, PPEs include the coveralls that we wear over our scrub suits, along with the mask, the goggles and the face shield that protect us from getting infected by the coronavirus, or any other pathogen. It takes 45 minutes for us to wear the PPE in sequential steps — a process called ‘donning’. Then we follow a designated route to the Covid ICU where we work with the sickest of patients. When our shift ends, six hours later, we leave the ICU via another designated route to reach the ‘doffing’ area. ‘Doffing’, or getting out of the PPE, is another step-by-step process that also takes 45 minutes. Why is this important? Because it is relevant to my story.

On 17 May, just like any other healthcare worker, I reached my duty 45 minutes prior to my shift timing. I felt slightly bloated and had mild cramps in my abdomen, which I ignored thinking I might have eaten something spicy or unhygienic. In the rush and excitement to serve in the Covid ICU for the first time, I had completely forgotten that I was nearing the end of my menstrual cycle and it was time for my periods. All I could focus on was being in the midst of a pandemic and also needing to stay safe. I had completely forgotten that I had a woman’s body inside a frontline worker.

I took my sweet 45 minutes, donned my PPE, and walked into the ICU. There were five patients there, all with varying levels of coronavirus infections and all, undoubtedly, very sick. I had a junior resident doctor and a nurse to assist me for the next six hours. Having worn the PPE for the first time, I was struggling with perspiration in the 40°C weather, slight thirst and some claustrophobia from being packed in layers from top to bottom. Two hours into my shift, I felt something warm in between my legs. I immediately knew what it was — periods.

Also read: Govt could now home deliver mother & child care drugs, contraceptives in containment zones

Free bleeding

I was unprepared. When you work in Covid areas, you go to work empty-handed. You do not even carry your keys or phone with you, let alone a sanitary napkin, to make sure you do not take infection back home.

I couldn’t risk leaving my sick patients unattended in the ICU for 45 minutes to doff plus 45 minutes to don the PPE again — a total of 1 hour 30 minutes — to just wear a sanitary napkin. Also, that would mean I would need another set of PPE, and in a pandemic, PPEs are precious and being rationed. I didn’t want to waste even one.

If I asked someone to substitute for me, it would again utilise three new PPE kits — two for me and one for the other doctor. My seniors were busy with important administrative work, so I didn’t think it would be right to disturb their momentum. They were the ones doing the important ‘preparedness’ job, which includes procurement of necessary equipment, drugs and other items to make sure the Covid ICU is functional.

My uterus getting rid of its endometrium at this hour was my own personal hilarious tragedy.

I finally decided, I’ll bleed till it doesn’t show.

Even if it did show, it wouldn’t have mattered. PPEs are designed to be completely water proof, and a little bit of bleeding wouldn’t affect me or others because all of it would be contained inside my scrub suit and PPE.

I wasn’t distressed. In fact, free bleeding felt completely natural (because it is). Yet, I missed the security of having a sanitary napkin tucked between my thighs dutifully absorbing the blood. I missed not having to worry about infections. There is an infection called Toxic Shock Syndrome, caused by a bacteria called Staphylococcus aureus, which can potentially kill you if you’re not careful with your menstrual hygiene. I missed the safety of not soiling the scrub suit I was wearing. I realised how privileged I have been all my life to have access to menstrual hygiene products. My duty went on for the next four hours, and I was too engrossed in patient care to even think about my periods any more.

Also read: India’s workplaces need to understand menstruation better. Period

Nothing heroic

Had there been no coronavirus pandemic, my female colleagues would have offered me sanitary napkins, my male colleagues would have told me to take it easy and take the day off. Because when you’re a doctor, surrounded by doctors, menstruation is not a taboo.

Having seen the human body and its intricacies so close, no healthcare worker holds any bias against the functioning of a body, male or female. No one has ever felt uncomfortable seeing the ‘wings’ of a sanitary napkin peeking out from our underwear when we wear our scrub suits every morning in the changing room. No doctor is bothered if you’re a patient getting operated for appendicitis and are on your period.

As soon as my shift ended, it took me the usual 45 minutes to doff the PPE and discard it. I took a bath, washed the soiled scrub suit, and dipped it in antiseptic solution. I texted my friend about the ordeal while going back home. I was surprised by her response. She called me a ‘true warrior’ who bled on the line of duty. I was flustered at the flattery. Am I not just another regular woman doing my job. Regular women menstruate while working — nothing heroic about it. However, unlike me, who bled freely by choice, if one has to menstruate without a pad or a tampon out of compulsion, it makes her a victim of social apathy.

The Indian women labourers who’re delivering babies on the road, and within an hour, walking back home —are they heroes? No, they’re victims too. They’re losing blood with every step they take.

Also read: Less than 20% menstruating girls & women in India use pads. Here’s how to overcome barriers

Only 36 per cent of 336 million menstruating girls and women in India use sanitary napkins. How have the rest managed so far? In India, 23 million girls drop out of school annually when their periods begin. Most cite lack of access to toilets and clean water as the reason. Aren’t they all victims of ‘period poverty’?

The least we can do is talk about it. Periods can happen during pandemics, cyclones, riots, earthquakes and Covid-19 infections. And ensuring menstrual hygiene is as important as ensuring food, water, shelter and treatment.

Talk about it, so they can hear.

After my experience, we are making a duty roster for the Covid and non-Covid wards keeping in mind everyone’s menstrual cycles. I thank my department and my institute, Pt. B.D. Sharma PGIMS, Rohtak, for making it a wonderful place for women to work in. If they had known of my ordeal, my department would have gone out of the way to help me, but I decided against disclosing it at that moment, for which I take full personal responsibility.

The author is a junior resident doctor in Anaesthesiology with a keen interest in women’s health. Her Twitter ID is @drkamnakakkar. Views are personal.

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    • When it’s your first day at Covid, it can take that much time. Also, to prevent overcrowding, there is a queue for the donning area. And at doffing time, there is a queue at the shower area.

      It always takes me 45 minutes approx everytime.

  1. She might have told her ordeal/ her story to highlight the plight of millions of women who do not have access to menstrual hygiene.How many quarantine centres, how many make shift Covid shelters or in fact any one responsible for putting a temporary shelter in place has thought about this basic necessities.
    Heroic to bring out the discussion in the open for policy makers to consider a vital point.How many trains have this facility, how many bus stations have proper bathrooms. Least to speak about schools.A lot needs to be done about not only getting the infrastructure in place, but maintainence of it.We have a long way to go about it.Hope the Pandemic does not decelerate the process initiated by the Government and encouraging building of toilets for every home, and at all public places

  2. I live in india since 10 years and dont understand why the government doest promote the use of a silicone menstrual cup. Hygienic, no waste and for 150 rupees a 10 year long solution to menstrual woes.

  3. What is unhygienic about this exactly? The PPE is sealed, doesnt allow any bodily secretion to come out. So how does it affect the patient in any way? She is not leaving a trail of blood all over the place. This was obviously a one off situation, she is not prescribing this as regular practise. The discomfort was felt by writer alone, so whats the problem?

  4. Yes.. PPE take this much time to wear….

    Patients over periods… Shows strength of her character….

    Periods are not dirty… Stop stigma…

  5. I think this has happened with so many women…so many times….that u are doing some work and periods come in between…
    She chose to take care of her patients, not of her safety… Shows the strength of her character….
    People who thinks this is gross.. don’t act like u see Himalayan water springs come from your vagina…
    By the way, PPE is 100% water proof… she was not infecting any body…
    PPE takes 1.5 hours total…this is true.
    Source of information-I am a doctor.

  6. What a daring article and candid share !!
    Overwhelmed with respect for your professionalism ,attitude and courage to create awareness on this issue by sharing ur on story on such a wide platform !!
    True heroine u are !!
    Bravo !!

  7. wtf ! 1 and a half hour for donning and doffing a PPE ? Are you kidding? Don’t sensationalize menstruation. Isn’t is obvious? What’s the news here? Media never credits doctors for their hard work and dedication but now they are suddenly out of their cocoon to discuss PPE COVID-19 periods etc for TRP

  8. So this woman is a medical professional and she willingly bled in her ppe? That is absolutely disgusting and irresponsible. That is a huge health hazard to anyone she is in contact with. Gross!

    • Read the article properly ..even your selfish self obsessed brain may be able to decipher the obvious fact that the ppe is waterproof and the only risk she will have will be to her own body and not anyone else’s..u find all this gross,but this is u will see when u come put of your upper class head in the cloud mentality and actually volunteer to do something useful instead of passing judgement from the safety of your air conditioned flats..i hate people like u not because they are dumb and ignorant but because they chose to share their cynical holier-than-thou attitude with the rest of the world..u don’t deserve our hard work and risks we take to ensure your well being..if u fall ill u deserve to be left in your ac rooms to fend for yourself then we will see how gross u look..if u think urself so clean and dainty just look inside yourself you are nothing but a rotting carcass of a cockroach ..while bravehearts sweating and bleeding in their ppe caring for the sick and dying are the even prettier than the angels..hope u get some perspective of what I am saying and grow up..your parents will thank u for growing up

  9. How ironic. Talking about menstrual hygiene & then bleeding freely by choice. much respect to her excitement at work , but sorry that’s not hygienic . It’s surprising how people can’t discern between natural process of human body & bodily secretions, like period and menstrual blood. Rather there should be an awareness to spread hygiene among women folks & installation of more sanitary pad venting machine in rural areas. Being in healthcare; no ,we don’t shy from talking about it ; but yes, let’s give due dignity to the uterus in doing its process as much as we give to our bladder or our posterior other !!

  10. What a powerful story! I’ve had my share of mishaps and always wondered how other women handled this ( from all walks of life and generations past) but never felt comfortable asking. I was impressed when one of my favorite authors mentioned a bit of it in her books. Thank you so much for empowering and inspiring us! You are a hero!

  11. I’m sorry but that is completely unsanitary and absolutely disgusting for someone who’s supposed to be caring for people to be doing. Yea bleeding happens and shouldn’t at all be shamed. It’s natural and not taboo at all, but I don’t want someone’s arm bleeding all over the place let alone in a medical environment when they should be keeping me safe. I sure don’t want someone taking care of me in a medical sense to do it.

    • She was in a waterproof ppe…read the article properly ignorant non Medico.. it means that the only risk of infection was only to her and not to anyone else…hipe your selfish brain will now get some appeasement as for you all we doctors are just robots who should continue to risk our lives over you ungrateful people flouting social distancing over the drop of the all means stay away from our setup next time u fall ill..we will consider it a priviledge

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