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Q&A: Dr. Malini Chavali Discusses Recent COVID-19 Surge In Her Native India

Dr. Malini Chavali
OSF HealthCare
Dr. Malini Chavali

A recent deadly COVID-19 surge in India has been difficult to watch from afar for one Peoria medical professional.

Dr. Malini Chavali is an internist with OSF Medical Group. She came to Peoria 25 years ago after attending medical school in her native India, and still has several family members in India.

Chavali recently spoke with WCBU reporter Joe Deacon about the heavy toll COVID-19 has had on India.

Joe Deacon Can you tell us a little bit more about your background growing up in India for half your life and then coming to America?

Dr. Malini Chavali: I went to med school in India, and I came to Peoria because my husband was working for Caterpillar. So I came straight from India to Peoria in 1996. And growing up in India, you know, India still a part of me; the culture is still a part of me, and it is who I am.

You still have family members and friends in India. How often have you been able to travel back to India, and when was the last time you were able to visit?

Chavali: I've been going back to India once every 2-3 years. My parents are still in India, my brother and sister still live there, and my husband's brother is still there, so we do visit often. The last time I was there in India was in February of 2020, a few weeks before we went into the lockdown.

How difficult has it been for you to observe COVID-19 surge in India from such a great distance?

Chavali: During the first lockdown last June, my brother had COVID and he had to be hospitalized for 18 days. And it was a very difficult experience for me, because throughout his hospital stay, he had a physician who would talk to him on the phone, but there was no physician that would actually come and examine him. And back in June, the treatment for COVID was still pretty vague, so there was a lot of fear at the time. But by God's grace, he did well.

With the second surge right now, it's impacted many number of people compared to the first surge they had last year. So it was deeply concerning, disturbing, and heartbreaking to see that people were dying because the lack of oxygen or not being able to get a hospital bed. And (it’s) also very heartbreaking because to see that the frontline workers, the physicians were feeling helpless because of lack of resources. So this surge has been very hard.

How is the health care system in India and the way they're handling the pandemic different from what we've seen here in America?

Chavali: In India, there is a government health care system, where the health care is provided free for low income (individuals). Then there are corporate private healthcare systems, which provide very good quality of care but at a price. And there are also small, private clinics that are physician-owned. So when you look at the treatment protocols for COVID, they can vary between if you were to present to a private clinic, or if you went to a corporate private hospital, or if you went to a government hospital.

You kind of touched on how your brother was hospitalized, and you've had some other relatives who've gotten the disease as well. How are your friends and family doing now?

Chavali: Starting at the beginning, which is when a lot of my family members started to get sick, and thankfully because they've received one dose of the vaccine, most of them have recovered at home. I have one relative right now who 72 years old (and) received both doses (who) is in the hospital, but we are hoping he'll do well.

From a distance, how much virtual contact have you been able to have with your family and friends who've been ill, and what type of guidance Have you been able to give them about COVID-19?

Chavali: Usually, if family or friends have like mild COVID, I talk to them over the phone. But if I think that they're having moderate symptoms, then I FaceTime them to see how they're doing, and based on that I would recommend if they should be hospitalized or not. But the big frustration for me had been the way the physicians prescribed steroids in India. I tell them or guide them (on) when to take the steroids, and how long to take, and what dosage. But what happens is that some of them still follow the guidelines at the local physicians, so that had been hard for me. I still tell them what to look for if they've been prescribed high doses of steroids.

Just again, on a personal level, though, having to watch what has happened in India over the past month or so, how difficult has it been for you to see what's happening to your country?

Chavali: Yeah, it has been extremely difficult. (But) we have seen a lot of generosity and compassion from around the world in sending aid to India, and that meant a lot.

Have things started to get a little bit better just in the past couple of weeks at all, then?

Chavali: Yes, it slowly appears to be improving. I have not had any calls last week from friends or family with regards to symptoms related to COVID. The hospital bed situation has improved; the oxygen situation has improved. And because of the increasing awareness about black fungus, people are now more aware not to use steroids indiscriminately and to be very judicious about the use, and there's increasing awareness of controlling diabetes so that it can prevent maybe developing the fungal infection. So I think things are looking better, and there is increasing awareness that people need to be vaccinated. So more people are lining up for the vaccine. So I think everything seems to be slowly appears to be improving.

Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.