I was four when my little sister was born; chubby cheeks with dimples, she was a sight to behold. Even as kids we were quite different. She was the well organized, tidy almost to a fault. More academically successful that me. And quiet. So quiet that her 2nd grade teacher complained that she was always daydreaming. While I would constantly be misplacing my dolls, school books and stationary, Kaz (short for Karishma) always knew where everything was.
Surprisingly, she always trusted me. Once I convinced her to let me cut her favourite doll’s hair, telling her that it would grow back healthier. Needless to say, Barbie was left with a badly cut bob, and it took a long time for Kaz to realise she had been duped.
As we grew up I felt more protective towards her. While I constantly got myself into messy situations at school, I was glad to see she had steered clear of the drama, and any sign of squabbles with friends had me baying for blood. I would be the one to convince mum to allow Kaz to go out (how us Firstborns fight for the rights we were so cruelly denied lol!) and lose my temper if I heard about anyone saying anything mean to her. No one else but me was allowed to bully her.
As a kid there were two things in life Kaz wanted to be as a kid, Princess Jasmine from Aladdin and a Doctor. Soon the reality dawned on her that becoming the Princess of Agrabah and flying around on a magic carpet may not be a viable option, and so perhaps it may be an idea to pursue a medical career. Suddenly every medical TV show from Casualty to ER to Holby City was regular viewing in our household, by this point our little brother had come along and the both of us would sit around watching Kaz engrossed in the TV screen.
While there are an array of reasons behind why people want to become doctors, the impact medics, and the UK’s National Health Service has been huge since we can remember.
In 1990 dad was diagnosed with kidney failure and was told he would have to begin dialysis, thus many of my memories of those years is him coming home from work and three nights a week heading to the hospital. Those nights I would lay in bed fighting sleep, waiting to hear the front door open confirming that he was back home.
Three years later, that all changed when we got the call; a match had been found and so dad had a kidney transplant. 16 years later he’d get a second transplant. Seeing the commitment of healthcare workers at such a young age certainly contributed to Kaz’s hope of becoming a doctor. I too was keen on becoming one but then somewhere along the way, I discovered boys, The Spice Girls and glitter eye shadow.
Kaz’s first attempt at getting into medical school did not work out, so she took a year out and redid a few exams to get her grades even higher. The second time round she didn’t get in again, and so she decided she would pursue an undergraduate degree in Biomedical Science, and the three years after, would once more apply. During those three years I wondered if she would change her mind, that perhaps she would think she’s done with education and find another area of interest.
Applications were opened and sure as hell, she was applying for medical school again.
I remember going into her room during that time. On her bed was an application form to become a researcher. It had been suggested that she apply as a back-up plan in case medicine did not work out. She folded the form and put it in a draw and said she would apply later and send it off. Later I’d find out that the form remained there untouched. It was Medical School or nothing, and this girl was never going to stop trying.
She finally received a letter from the Department of Medicine at University College London inviting her for an interview.
The night before, it began to snow, and when the weather forecast said it would get heavier overnight, we panicked. Now, if you know anything about London’s transport system you are aware that it’s not exactly great with snow, and so at 10pm that night Mum and Dad drove us to a cheap hotel near the University. There was no way Kaz was not going to miss this interview.
Months later news arrived.
She was in.
The only caveat being that the admission was for the following year (which worked out great because in the gap year she ended up meeting her husband, but that’s a different story). I remember crying that day, weeping with joy, with pride, in the toilets at the gym.
With 2016 came graduation and that was it: a fully-fledged doctor. Of all the questions I had for her when she first started working, the main one was ‘Is it actually like ER and Grey’s Anatomy?’
Every day I look at the headlines.
X number of new cases.
X number of deaths.
Hour after hour the numbers come in from around the world. I gaze out of the window, my Dad is walking in the little garden. As a kidney transplant patient, he is immunosuppressed and so cannot risk leaving the house. My mum talks on the phone with her friends and family. The ultimate extrovert, this is a new reality for her; no more seeing friends, no more organising community events for elderly people. It is like watching a butterfly go back into the cocoon.
While they both grapple with this new reality, there is another facet to it. They, like many others around the world, cannot see their other two children for the moment.
My sister was on leave when COVID-19 cases began to be reported in the UK. I had seen enough from China and Italy to know what was coming. I had watched, read and heard enough to know that this virus was creating what felt like an abyss of grief, fear and loss.
‘This is the last time we can all see each other for a bit,’ she said as we gathered at her flat. While I would be with mum and dad, my brother and his fiancé would also not be able to see us. As a frequent crier, I burst into tears, sobbing away, asking her if things were going to get really bad. She nodded.
‘Are lots of people going to die?’ I asked.
She sighed silently.
‘But what about you Kaz, you are asthmatic, what if you get it and something happens?’ I said to her.
‘I’ll be OK,’ she said, ‘don’t worry, don’t be scared’
But you see.
Since the moment this girl was born, as her older sister it’s my job to worry. How do I not worry. Throughout our lives I have felt able to protect her, and she has protected me. As kids when I would have bad dreams, I would go get into her bed because I was scared alone, and as adults I have offered to fight anyone who has said anything to upset her.
But now I come face to face with something I cannot shield her from. Something I am powerless over.
While I deal with my own feelings, I also observe my parents. When my sister began to exhibit COVID-19 symptoms, I watched my dad’s facial expressions tighten every time she called, as if he was holding his breath until he heard the words ‘she’s fine.’
My mum sitting in the car outside her flat as my sister stood at the window as we dropped off some shopping for her.
But it is not just them and me facing challenges, it is also her.
Her and the millions of frontline workers both in the health and non-health sector around the world who cannot see their families, who put their own lives at risk to support us, many of whom are abandoned or taken for granted by their Governments, their employers and the general population.
Many of whom who don’t enjoy some of the privileges that we as a family still have.
As soon as it was possible, Kaz was back to work, onto the COVID-19 ward. While the terror of dad potentially contracting the virus weighs heavy on us all, for her the shade in which it exists is sharper, especially on the day she sees a kidney transplant patient diagnosed with COVID-19.
We have Facetime and phone calls, but these are like a lid which does not quite fit the pot it was created for; things keep spilling over.
There is all this commentary about how we did not appreciate what we had before this pandemic. These hot takes are almost romantic, have we really learnt the value of things? Of people?
As I write this, almost 30 NHS workers in the UK have died. Staff continue to decry the lack of protective equipment, funding remains inadequate. 988 people died in one day, the highest death toll in Europe. Cleaners, janitors, nurses, porters, doctors, all who put themselves at risk every day, remain underpaid and overworked.
This is not only in the UK, other countries are seeing the same.
We refer to them as heroes and angels and while for me my sister and all those working alongside her at every level, are incredible beings, they are not invincible, and we cannot treat them that way.
In this moment
My parents are sat watching TV.
My sister is at work, at the High Dependency Unit in the COVID-19 ward.
I scroll through Twitter and see people tweet about losing a loved one, headlines about people dying.
Let me tell you something I have learnt in life; absence is heavy.