It was my pleasure to chat with Dr. Anil Saigal and Ranjani Saigal, two well-known and highly respected names in the Boston community. The entire community was very worried for their wellbeing after they contracted COVID. No one knew much about the disease in March, so the unknowns were bigger. I spoke to them about their experience battling this terrible disease and their takeaways for us.
IAGB: Thank you very much for your time and willingness to share your COVID journey with our readers. Do you know where or how you contracted COVID-19?
Dr. Anil Saigal: I was in Oxford from Mar 5th to Mar 15th. At that point, there were no restrictions in the UK and life was normal. Since I couldn’t get a direct flight home, I came through JFK, where I had to spend a night. I either contracted COVID in UK or JFK. Ranjani wasn’t with me, but she got the infection from me.
IAGB: When did you start showing symptoms? What were your symptoms? Did you have any pre-existing conditions?
Dr. Anil Saigal: I flew back home on the 16th of March and on the 19th I started feeling sick with slight fever. So, I called my doctor on the 20th. At first the nurse I spoke with did not think I had COVID based on my symptoms but I insisted on seeing the doctor, who after hearing my travel history agreed I should get tested. I got the positive test results on 23rd morning. I self-quarantined at that point. And no, I do not have any pre-existing conditions.
IAGB: At what point did you have to be hospitalized?
Dr. Anil Saigal: My daughter Amrita has many friends that are doctors, and one of her friends asked her to check if I was breathing normally or heavily. She called Ranjani to check that who noticed that I was indeed breathing heavily. Amrita’s friend recommended to not take any chance and call 911. The ambulance came and took me to Lahey. I don’t remember if I was breathing heavy or anything but remember walking to ambulance and being wheeled into Lahey. This was the last thing I remember of my long struggle and rest is a blur. For me, getting medical help at the right time was critical. I was intubated as soon as I reached the hospital.
IAGB: At what point did you get tested, Ranjaniji?
Mrs. Ranjani Saigal: My symptoms were cough, fever and feeling faint but nothing as extreme as Anil’s. The hospital declined testing for me. When the hospital informed me that Anil had to be intubated, I fainted. I was transported to Lahey by ambulance where they tested me immediately. I was hospitalized for a day. My main symptom associated with COVID-19 was feeling dizzy. Our friend Dr. Ashok Joshi gave me an oximeter so I could keep tabs on my oxygen level.
IAGB: What happened after that?
Mrs. Ranjani Saigal: I was home, in total isolation, feeling unwell myself and worrying for Anil incessantly. When our friends found out, they started reaching out. My dear friend Raksha Soni took charge of the food along with Vaishali Gade, and this is how “Meals to Heal” program came into being. I was the first person to benefit from it. Every morning there would be home cooked food delivered to my doorstep. My neighbor was very kind and made sure I had the basic necessities.
IAGB: When Anilji was at the hospital and you were home alone, how did you manage at home?
Mrs. Ranjani Saigal: Prayer, Prayer and more Prayer. I was praying all day. I am a trained priest, so have access to many scriptures that I read all day long. Being in isolation, I had no one to hug, so I would pick up my idols and hug them. God wanted me to get closer to him that way. In my opinion, you need something to hold onto, your faith is very important. At such times, you get into prayer so quickly. My kids learned so many scriptures in this time. The Power of prayer is amazing. With God by my side, I never felt alone.
IAGB: Tell us about your experience with the hospital
Mrs. Ranjani Saigal: Lahey was amazing. It was very well equipped. The doctors were excellent and were very kind to talk to our family, and they did all the right things. But having someone on top of everything was important. This is when our kids’ friends helped a lot.
Dr. Anil Saigal: Honestly, I have no memory of those 50 days! And no one could visit me during that time. I was intubated for 29 days, and even after that when I was conscious while still at the hospital and rehab, I don’t remember anything. Apparently, this is a common phenomenon and in fact better for a patient that goes through trauma so there is no PTSD. I would rather take this than remember the saga.
IAGB: At what point did the hospital discharge you?
Dr. Anil Saigal: After I was taken off the ventilator, I was in the hospital for another week. They were constantly monitoring my vitals and parameters. Once they knew that I had recovered from COVID-19 I was moved to rehab. The only remaining issues I had upon discharge from the hospital were ventilator issues. Rehab was focused on making me independent. I was there for 12 days, which is an unusually short recovery time.
IAGB: Tell us about your stay at the rehab center?
Dr. Anil Saigal: There was an entire wing of COVID patients, but no one was allowed to interact with each other. On my second or third day there, they asked me if I knew the date and I was shocked to find out that it was May 7th. I said what happened to month of April? When I later told Ranjani and kids, they started laughing. That’s when they realized I remembered nothing!
IAGB: How was homecoming?
Dr. Anil Saigal: To me it seemed like I was out for a short period as I have no memory of the hospital stay. But once I realized what had happened, I was thrilled to be back home.
Mrs. Ranjani Saigal: He doesn’t remember he had such a hard time but everyone else knows ☺ When he was moved from Lahey to rehab, he did not understand what the whole fuss was about as he didn’t realize he was in the hospital for so long. Once at rehab he realized what had happened he was super excited to come home. And the whole family was beyond ecstatic! It felt like God came at that moment. Every day he was at the hospital felt like a year. This is the year we bonded more with our son-in-law, and his family. His sister is a God gift who helped us immensely in these tough times. She is a doctor herself and kept the communication going with the Lahey doctors.
IAGB: What would you like our readers to take from your experience?
Mrs. Ranjani Saigal: People should understand how serious this is. It can happen to anyone. We did not take it that seriously initially. If we knew, Anil would have been more cautious in Oxford and JFK. He wasn’t wearing a mask then and no one else was. Till it hits you personally or someone you know, it is a just a number. But when it hits you, you realize how real it is. One thing I found out was even when your loved ones are in the ICU, you can send holy ash (vibhuti). The Chaplin will make sure they will put ash on the patient and say a prayer. The hospital supports you in sending your faith via these means. This meant a lot to me.
Dr. Anil Saigal: Most important thing we learned is everyone should have a healthcare proxy. About 80-90% Indians don’t have. If you don’t have one, DO IT urgently. And make sure your spouse and kids know where the papers are. For everything in ICU, they need permission. We cannot stress how very critical it is to have a healthcare proxy. Especially when moving me from Lahey to rehab, they would have needed a court order without a proxy, which could take a week’s time. Fortunately, I was awake and I could tell them that my wife is my proxy.
IAGB: If you were to go back and redo, what would you do differently if you got COVID?
Dr. Anil Saigal: I would take it more seriously to begin with. Otherwise from my side I couldn’t have done anything differently. I quarantined myself as soon as I knew I had COVID.
Mrs. Ranjani Saigal: If it was today, they won’t have intubated Anil right away. But this is all emerging so we don’t know what is accurate. If one ever has to go to the hospital, make sure someone brings your personal belongings back. All of Anil’s stuff was lost. They had no clothes for him when he was being moved from hospital to rehab. Another important thing is to have resources around you. You need a lot of doctors to humans’ translation. My Son in law’s sister is an amazing person, along with Amrita’s friends – I want to give a shout out to these younger doctors. I have absolute appreciation for these youngsters who are so willing to help. The hospitals are so busy that they have no time to talk to everyone. We were lucky to know a doctor at Lahey. Build your network. Ask for help.
IAGB: One thing that both of you are looking to get back to when this is over?
Dr. Anil Saigal: This is my second life. I will make it a point to try to make some difference in this world, to do my best to help people with this second chance I have been given.
Mrs. Ranjani Saigal: I want some peace, quiet and an uneventful life! To Anil’s point, I learned a lot and want to share that with all. Ekal is a blessing for me, it keeps me engaged and happy. It is my way to give back to the society.
IAGB: Have you been tested for antibodies?
Mrs. Ranjani Saigal: We haven’t been tested. And unfortunately, we cannot donate since we have been to India to a malaria impacted area very recently. Though I have signed up myself in the plasma registry for future needs.
IAGB: Now that both of you are mostly safe from this virus, are you folks staying home or going out?
Mrs. Ranjani Saigal: No place to go now ☺ No celebrations or events…lol. We are not taking any more or any less precautions than others are. We haven’t changed our lifestyles. We go for a walk every day to get fresh air.
Dr. Anil Saigal: I am not bored as I don’t know where first 2 months went by!
IAGB: Parting words for our readers?
Dr. Anil Saigal: We take things for granted. We need to remember that every day is a special day. Enjoy the most you can because you never know what strikes when. Have fun, be helpful, be respectful and take one day at a time.
Mrs. Ranjani Saigal: We are blessed to live in the Boston community I have received incredible help. IAGB’s mission is critical, it is building community, and it is very important to continue with this mission. Everybody we have touched knowingly unknowingly in any way, reached out back. It is unimportant to “succeed” in life but important to reach out to people. We are truly blessed to be in this Boston community.
Dr. Anil Saigal, a former IAGB President is Professor of mechanical engineering at Tufts University. Ranjani Saigal, former IAGB Director is executive director of Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation of USA. They are very active community members and co-founders of www.lokvani.com, a South Asian media outlet in New England.