However, many working on the ground agree that in the past week, helpline number 104 has become more responsive and streamlined, thereby cutting down on waiting time for patients.

Patient waiting inside an ambulance in Tamil NaduFile image/PTI
Delve Coronavirus Monday, May 17, 2021 - 16:28

Sixty-seven-year-old Suresh Kumar, a resident of Chennai’s Nandanam is livid. On May 12, his 97-year-old father-in-law died after an 8-hour wait in an ambulance outside the Rajiv Gandhi Government General Hospital (RGGGH), all in the effort to get an oxygen bed. “It was not COVID-19 that killed him,” Suresh says. “It was pure negligence. We just cannot accept what has happened. The way we were treated is just wrong,” he adds, disgusted.

Suresh, who is now positive for the novel coronavirus himself, recalls a traumatic day spent begging doctors for a bed, waiting endlessly for basic information, and finally praying for a single bed to open up. None of these efforts however bore fruit. “My father-in-law’s oxygen dropped to 75 on the 10th day after he tested positive. Till then, he was treated at home as per protocol,” Suresh explains. “When he found it hard to breathe, we rushed him to the Rajiv Gandhi Government General Hospital for treatment. We reached the hospital at around 4 pm. In a matter of hours, we were the 20th ambulance in a line that went beyond 30 desperate patients,” he adds.

According to Suresh, the family was made to wait beside the ambulance for over 8 hours with not a single doctor coming to check on the 97-year-old. "My father-in-law was diabetic. They didn’t even bother to come and ask us basic details. We couldn’t even give him any food even though he said he was hungry because we were scared to remove the oxygen mask,” he alleges.

“At 12 midnight, his pulse suddenly fell and they finally took him into the hospital. But he died within hours and all we could do was watch. Why did they do this? Was it because he was old? Does that mean he doesn’t deserve to live?” Suresh questions.

But age has proven to be no bar in what has now become a horrific phenomenon outside Chennai’s government hospitals and in the homes of patients struggling to fight COVID-19 in the city. Deaths of COVID-19 patients with dropping oxygen levels at home and in ambulances are on the rise in Tamil Nadu’s capital as the severe shortage of oxygen beds continues to haunt the city. This, when it has earmarked over 8,500 oxygen beds and over 2,000 ICU beds.  And the cost for this lack of preparation for the second wave is being paid by hapless residents, who are forced to watch their loved ones die at their home or in ambulances, waiting for a bed. Though Suresh's anger at the hospital and doctors is understandable, these medical professionals too are suffering. Overworked and under pressure, doctors and other hospital staff have to deal with an overload of cases and lack of resources.

‘Nobody should have this misfortune’

Just two days before Suresh lost his father-in-law, 49-year-old Amutha from Ambattur too breathed her last in a car, as her son Purushottaman desperately drove her from one government hospital to another. His mother’s condition suddenly deteriorated and he had no choice but to take her to a hospital.

“She started wheezing suddenly and we knew we had to rush her to a hospital. Her oxygen was dropping fast and went down to 55,” says Purushottaman. “We rushed her to Omandurar Medical College in a friend’s car. But we were told that there was no space and that we had to go to the Royapettah hospital. She died by the time we even got there,” he adds, quietly.

For this son who lost his mother to COVID-19, however, there is barely time to grieve. He is already panicking over whether his pregnant wife who is due to give birth next week will receive medical help when she goes into labour.

“She has tested positive and I have to make sure that everything is in order for the birth. I have been coordinating with volunteer groups and friends hoping to confirm that her admission will not be an issue. My father too just recovered from COVID-19 and came back home,” he says, his voice desperate. “A month ago, we were celebrating with a small bangle ceremony at home and now my mother is no more. This is so hard for us but there is no time to think, I have to prioritise my wife and unborn child,” he adds.

But even planning days ahead has not helped many – it only resulted in a longer wait time ultimately ending in loss and tragedy for several in the city.

This reporter first spotted 40-year-old Mohammad Rafiq waiting beside an ambulance inside the RGGGH premises on May 6. He had been travelling to different hospitals for five days in an effort to get his 75-year-old father, who had tested positive for coronavirus, an oxygen bed. The elderly man’s oxygen level was at 72 when Rafiq first spoke to TNM. Two days later, Rafiq called to say his father was dead.

“For five days we tried all four government hospitals – Stanley, Omandurar Medical College, Kilpauk Medical College and Rajiv Gandhi for a bed,” he says tearfully. “The doctors didn’t even look at us. When I asked for a bed, they just spoke harshly and left. To them, he may just be an old man but to me he is my father and I have failed him,” he adds, his voice cracking with emotion.

Rafiq says that he finally managed to get his father a bed the day after we met but by then it was too late.

“He was struggling to breathe and deteriorated quickly. Even inside the hospital we were treated disrespectfully. My father in fact said he was ready to go home and die, but I wanted him to get treated and get better,” says Rafiq. “Finally when he died they blamed his age... But I know it was because we didn’t get help sooner. I understand that the doctors are overworked and are unable to attend to every patient given the lack of beds, but what did we normal people do wrong? Nobody should have this misfortune of watching their parents die like this,” he adds.

Watch: The wait for a bed in Chennai's hospitals

‘Deaths due to lack of resources’

Across Tamil Nadu, several volunteers have come together to help COVID-19 patients find beds, oxygen concentrators, and even anti-viral drugs. One such group, Chennai Cares, which largely operates in Tamil Nadu’s capital, gets at least 150-200 calls a day requesting for aid in finding oxygen beds. Of these requests, volunteers tell TNM, the group manages to find a maximum of 90 beds in a day.

“It has been very difficult to find beds. The data initially provided by the government was inaccurate and we wasted a lot of time calling hospitals that were supposed to have 200 beds only to find that there were none left,” says Jenisha Rani, a volunteer with Chennai Cares. “Now we function with a database we have collated by ourselves, but there is no denying that more and more patients are dying at home,” she adds.

Jenisha points out that several families are left helpless, not knowing where to take the patient.

“They don’t get any confirmation regarding beds from hospitals and don’t want to keep moving critical patients from one place to another,” she explains. “They wait at home to get something confirmed and by the time a hospital gives the green light, it is too late, the patient dies,” she adds.

However, Jenisha points out that in the past week, helpline number 104 has been more responsive and streamlined, thereby cutting down on waiting time for patients. "In the last few days, 104 has been more responsive, patients are given ticket numbers and then have been also receiving confirmation of bed availability. We are also seeing a decrease in the number of requests coming to volunteer groups which is a good thing. At certain hours, they are also active on Twitter," she says.

Dr Aashish*, who runs a home health service in Chennai, has faced a rough three months as the number of COVID-19 cases in the city surged. For a medical professional, he explains, there is no greater pain than seeing a patient who can be saved die due to lack of resources.

“There has been a definite increase in the number of home deaths this time, compared to the first wave of COVID-19. I see eight to 10 patients a day and at least two of them die in a week because we are not able to shift them to hospitals with ventilators,” he explains. “We treat patients with mild to moderate symptoms at home as directed by the government, but the problem is even when matters get worse patients are not able to find beds for further treatment,” he adds.

Last week, the doctor lost two patients from Mint Street and Triplicane to COVID-19. They were both over the age of 80.

“The patient from Mint Street was sent back from the hospital to his residence when his oxygen saturation was 92. He passed away two days after getting back home. For the patient from Triplicane, her attenders went to four to five hospitals, both private and government, and then came back because they found no beds,” he explains. “The patient died hours later,” he adds.

The doctor points out that the method to access resources is unscientific because the effort put in to get an oxygen bed does not end in an equal result.

“We do our best before recommending that they be sent to a hospital. But ultimately they are dying at home or in ambulances before they can even get treatment,” he explains. “Tomorrow, I think even if I, as a doctor treating COVID-19 patients, need a bed, I will be turned away.”

As of Sunday, Tamil Nadu had a total of 2,07,789 active cases with 33,658 people testing positive on that very day. The number of deaths stood at 303 with total deaths in the state currently at 17,359. Chennai meanwhile reported 6,640 new cases, taking its total number of COVID-19 patients to 4,32,344. The Sunday bulletin also reported 82 deaths in the city.

* Name changed

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