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Subrata Das, a 65-year old resident of Chittaranjan Park, suffered a cardiac arrest. The family called the police, all the emergency services they could think of, but no one turned up. Finally, they managed to get one private ambulance and went from hospital to hospital, but none would admit the motionless patient.
“We weren’t sure if he was gone,” his daughter said in a post in which she described the way they were treated at one of the hospitals, “like animals.” It was a neighbourhood doctor who finally pronounced Das dead and issued a death certificate stating that he didn’t die of COVID-19. “Without it, I wouldn’t have been able to even cremate my father,” the hapless daughter wrote.
Around 6 am on April 25, 42-year-old widow Marina Francis, resident of Mayur Vihar in East Delhi, had a heart attack. Marina’s 21-year-old son Dennis Francis dialled 100 in vain for police help, when his calls to get an ambulance failed. After multiple attempts, an hour later a private ambulance did reach their building, but it was not equipped to deal with a cardiac case. On her way to the Dharamshila hospital, just 2 kms from her place, a breathless Marina, who also left behind a 12-year old daughter, breathed her last. Dharamshila hospital has four ambulances, but did not respond to their call as three of them are used to pick up and drop staff.
The six-week nationwide lockdown, that was meant to save lives, is taking a toll of non-COVID patients no less than COVID cases. Despite government orders that they should treat all patients, hospitals demand even critical cases bring a certificate that they are COVID-negative before even looking at them. Even more inaccessible to the non-COVID sick are hospitals in containment zones.
Manju Singh, 69, a resident at the plush Nirvana Country in Gurugram, has had recurring urinary tract infections leading to kidney complications, and has long been on antibiotics. Regular check-ups are vital to her wellbeing. Yet, Manju feels any hospital visit is to be avoided now, convinced that the government, while focused on fighting the coronavirus, has completely ignored the health of millions of others who are equally dependent on advanced health care facilities.
“Somewhere in the chaos, we seem to have overlooked these patients,” admitted Dr Vikas Panwar, Director of the Department of General and Robotic Surgery at Max Super Speciality Hospital in Delhi, in a media column.
Pregnant women turned away
Even by the most conservative estimates, patients like Manju in Delhi would run into thousands. A reality that finally dawned on union health minister Dr Harsh Vardhan. “I am receiving a lot of complaints regarding denial of treatment to patients suffering from critical ailments other then COVID-19,” the minister, himself an E&T doctor of repute, said in a video conference with Lt. Governor Delhi, health minister of Delhi, medical superintendents of major central and state government hospitals and municipal commissioners of Delhi, on April 17th.
Dr Harsh Vardhan confessed it was a testing time for everybody in the lockdown. “Patients who require urgent medical attention are venturing out with great difficulty to reach a hospital. We should not turn them away on some flimsy pretext, as certain procedures like blood transfusion, dialysis etc can’t wait.”
The minister also announced that while AIIMS, Safdarjung, LNJP and Rajiv Gandhi Super Speciality Hospital in the city had been dedicated to COVID-19 treatment, the other hospitals have to take care of the non-COVID patients.
But the minister’s words have fallen on the deaf ears of hospital managements, public and private. For instance, even as the government promotes deliveries in a hospital setting, the Lok Nayak Jaya Prakash Hospital which was a non-COVID hospital converted itself into a COVID hospital and turned away women on the verge of delivering their babies. Many women also say that doctors and hospitals are postponing the schedule of immunization shots that new born kids need.
The Yashoda Super Specialty Hospital in Kaushambi, an upper middle class colony in Ghaziabad district found itself in the containment zone on March 28th, when Girnar, one of the 15-storey residential towers was sealed. Incidentally, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s personal residence is in that building. The red zone status (it is now in orange zone since April 16th) resulted in patients avoiding the hospital, even though the Yashoda team had offered Kaushambi residents free ambulance service during the lockdown.
The 200-bed hospital had tapered off most surgeries and special clinics and has been running only its emergency services with a skeletal staff. Vinay Kumar Mittal, president of the Kaushambi Residents’ Welfare Association (KARWA) was scheduled to have an eye surgery on March 29th. He says they postponed it indefinitely. The quarterly health check-up – for cardiac, arthritis and diabetes—that Mittal and his wife were to have had in mid-April, has also been postponed. “They told me to call after mid-May” said Mittal.
The hospital’s PBX is not working. A heart patient who managed to access the emergency service said a team of doctors and technicians were present in front of the main entrance, with thermal scanners and asking questions to rule out COVID-19, and he was then taken to an isolation ward first and only then to emergency. But on April 29th, the Emergency service was also closed as one patient tested positive.
“Non-COVID patients are being looked after, we are doing online consultations, the very sick patients are being sent to other hospitals and they are being treated,” insisted Dr Naresh Dang, Senior Consultant in internal medicine at Max Super Specialty Hospital, Patparganj in Delhi. “Planned surgeries have been delayed, but emergency is being taken care of”. Planned or cold surgeries include procedures like knee replacement, gall bladder removal etc.
Incidentally, on April 27th, 33 staffers including two doctors of this hospital tested positive. All employees of Max Healthcare were tested after a doctor, a nurse and a non-medical staff of Max Hospital at Saket, a South Delhi locality tested positive. This hospital has a whole block dedicated to COVID-19 cases.
Talking about reports of non-COVID patients dying as they get pushed around from one hospital to the other, in the apprehension that they may test positive, Dr Dang said “government policies are such that they can put hospitals in a bit of a spot, so they are being careful.”
The Max Hospital at Patparganj is, however, accepting all serious patients: cases of heart attack, brain stroke, high grade fever that is non-COVID, pneumonia etc and they are getting admitted, he says, explaining that if suspected, the patients are tested for COVID in the emergency ward and kept in a pre-COVID ward for 24 hours as they await the results. Those testing negative are then taken in for treatment. But if an emergency heart patient needs intervention, they go ahead without a COVID test, taking all precautions including the use of Grade 3 PPE, Dr Dang explained.
Some non-COVID patients are taking the tele-consultation route. Dr Dang said he consults at least 30 patients thus daily, a small fraction of the number of patients he would see before the COVID virus attack. “If I feel they need hospital care that is not of emergency nature, I tell them to go to small nursing homes nearby and not big hospitals. Many small nursing homes are open, and they can take care of the non-COVID patients who don’t need big facilities like ICU.”
In the midst of these claims and counterclaims, the reality check for non-COVID patients is fairly clear:
- Senior citizens across the board have been hit harder as they are more likely to need emergency medical care and most likely to be turned away by hospitals.
- Excruciating dental pain will have to be tolerated till dental clinics open.
- Government ambulances never responded even in the past, so why would they now?
- It cannot be denied that many private hospitals that accept non-COVID patients could be unsafe.
- Hospitals are not looking at the government sponsored Arogya Setu app on patients’ phones to see if it is showing green or red before turning them away.