Getting it … Getting over it: How an Indian-American joint family in New York lived through COVID-19

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Aroon Shivdasani in a rare moment with her granddaughter after
recovering from a severe bout of the Coronavirus. (Photo: courtesy Aroon Shivdasani

It was April 25, 2020, when I called Aroon Shivdasani, doyen of the Indian arts world in New York City and beyond, for her take on how things are going with the performing arts in the COVID-19 era. She said she was down with the coronavirus after coming back from a cruise in March and not in touch with anyone. It did not seem so serious.

Things must have gone downhill, because on July 5, I heard her harrowing story of what she felt was a near-death experience she had with the virus that has killed more than half a million people worldwide and infected more than 11 million and counting. In the U.S. alone, it has led to more than 130,000 fatalities, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center by July 6, 2020.

At the time that Shivdasani was infected, it was New York’s worst nightmare and hospitals were getting flooded with patients showing symptoms and there were not enough ventilators and PPEs, etc. This becomes relevant as the story unfolds.

According to Shivdasani, she owes her life to her daughter Sasha who attended to her through the ordeal.

But we are jumping ahead.  And the story is not over despite her being free of the virus since May 12.

Shivdasani lives with her husband in New York City and the family lives together but in different apartments in the same building, another version of the Indian joint family. Her husband has serious underlying conditions that would make it highly dangerous for him to contract the virus. Shivdasani has small grandchildren she is obviously extremely attached to.

Here is her story –

On March 5, 2020, Shivdasani and her husband returned from a cruise and flew back to New York from Miami. She had hit her forehead and suffered a gash along the way, so decided to go to Weill Cornell Hospital to get it treated. It was at least five hours before she was out of that hospital at 10 pm at night after a Cat-scan etc.

Four days later, she began throwing up and got fever and chills. She could not keep down any food for two weeks. Her husband got frantic and finally called for an ambulance.

The first responders checked her up and pronounced, “Yup. She’d got it.” But they went on to inform the family that all they could do was drop her off at a hospital and they might not see her at all while she was there nor visit her. “We will take her but will have to put her with hundreds of others, and can’t tell you when you will see her,” or words to that effect. They advised the family to try keeping her in isolation.

Aroon Shivdasani’s daughter Sasha, who took care of her mother day and night for many weeks to bring her back to health from the Coronavirus. This photo was taken in pre-COVID times. (Photo: Aroon Shivdasani)

Shivdasani’s older daughter, who lives downstairs moved into action. Because they had another apartment in the building, she got that cleaned and disinfected thoroughly, and put her mother, who had already gotten worse, there with all the accoutrements for looking after her.

“For a while, I thought I was dead. I was hallucinating, talking to my mother who died 6 years ago, and telling her, ‘Mom, I’m here now’ and things like that,” Shivdasani recounted. She could not tolerate light and lived in virtual darkness for days on end.

“My daughter Sasha looked after me morning, noon and night. Giving me electrolytes because I could not eat, and oxygen when needed  – from March 15 to May 9th. I thought I was finished.”

Not to leave out the fact that all these weeks, Sasha made sure to keep a mask on while treating her mother, and taking other precautions like washing her clothes after attending to her.

When the symptoms seemed to have come under control, Shivdasani was taken back to her doctor, and he pronounced her Covid-free on May 9, 2020.

But, and it was a big ‘but’. The doctor informed her she had pneumonia.

“My lungs were gunked-up so I had to use a pump for the next two weeks,” Shivdasani said. It did not end there.

She went back to the doctor in late June.

“He told me that Covid affects the heart and that I had a mitro-valve malfunction, where the blood entered the left valve but came back out again. That was going to be the case for the rest of my life, he said,” Shivdasani explained.

Plus, she was told her lungs were going to be weaker; She was also diagnosed as pre-diabetic, she added.”Doctors say they don’t know in how many ways this Covid affects you.”

“So Covid went away but it left me some gifts,” says Shivdasani with a quintessential New Yorker gumption and humor.

She is convinced that if she had not been very healthy pre-Covid, and not had any underlying conditions, she would not have recovered.

“I doubt I would have made it out alive, I was very lucky, not just because of being very healthy, but because of my daughter who took care of me,” possibly at risk of her own health despite the precautions, she contends.

“I really wouldn’t wish it (virus) on anyone.”

Shivdasani’s story is emblematic of how the Indian joint family has adjusted to Western conditions, remaining close, living close, and helping each other stay alive.

Shivdasani met her grandchildren over Facetime when possible. That was a dramatic change from when they used to be with her regularly pre-Covid. The family is now limping back to some form of its earlier normality — the New York version of an Indian joint family – close together, living apart.

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