At the beginning of last week, Annarao Kulkarni, a 70-year-old retired teacher living in BTM Layout in Bengaluru, was going about his life as usual. He stepped out to go to the bank and buy groceries without an inkling of what was to come. After feeling unwell, he tested positive for the coronavirus on May 2 and his family wanted to get him hospitalised.
"We were looking for an ICU bed but we were told there are none available. We then started looking for a general bed and we called the helpline numbers and reached out to everyone we knew to try and get a bed. I was continuously talking to strangers begging for any leads to a bed," says Vidya Kulkarni, his daughter-in-law.
But the family was unable to access a hospital bed in Bengaluru for over 24 hours and only found a hospital bed late on May 3 at St John's Hospital. "By the time we were allotted a ICU bed, his condition had worsened and it was late," adds Vidya. Her father-in-law passed away soon after.
On the same day, in another part of the city in Madiwala, Amarnath was desperately searching a hospital bed for his father Purushottam. "He got fever on April 30 and he was taking medicines prescribed by our local doctor but two days later, we decided to look for a hospital bed for him. The rapid COVID-19 test returned positive and we received the BU number quickly. But there was a long delay in our search for a hospital bed," says Amarnath.
On May 3, three days after he first showed symptoms, Purushottam's oxygen levels dropped alarmingly between 10 am and 3 pm. "Every hour the oxygen level kept dropping and by 3 pm it was down to 50," he says. "I spent the entire day arguing with Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) officials asking for a hospital bed and they said that there are no beds available," he adds.
Running out of time and faced with few alternatives, Amarnath decided to hail an ambulance and try going to hospitals searching for beds. "We booked an ambulance and went to hospitals looking for a bed. I went inside St John's Hospital and what the doctors said was true â€” there were no beds even in the emergency wards. I saw there were few patients on the floor," he says, adding, "My father died in the ambulance as we were unable to find a bed."
Vidya and Amarnath's prolonged attempts to find a hospital bed in Bengaluru depicts the plight of patients and their relatives in the city even as doctors and nurses try to ration their limited resources during the current COVID-19 crisis.
Hundreds of Bengaluru residents lost their lives last week even as their families desperately tried every avenue possible to figure out the system of booking a hospital bed. From May 1 until May 9, 2059 COVID-19 victims were recorded in Bengaluru, and speaking to some of their families over the past week, it is clear that many died even before they got a hospital bed.
Tanveer Ahmed, a volunteer, says he has worked round the clock taking dead bodies to cremation sites in Bengaluru. He adds that some in the city died in their homes after their condition deteriorated rapidly. "In a day, we get non-stop calls asking us to cremate dead bodies and in the last few days there have been calls from people who have died in their homes. They were unable to find a hospital bed. There was no place for them to go," Tanveer says.
A look at the BBMP's dashboard for the availability of COVID-19 hospital beds shows there were over 2,000 beds available in Bengaluru on Monday morning. But a vast majority of them are general beds and not oxygen or ICU beds that critical patients require. In fact, there are zero ICU beds available in the government quota and zero beds available under the private quota going by the portal by private hospitals on Monday afternoon.
Ambulance outside the Indian Cemetery, off Hosur Road
Even those who managed to access a hospital bed are sometimes unlucky. Doctors working on COVID-19 shifts, especially those involved in triaging â€” the process of determining the priority of patients' treatments â€” say that they are faced with decisions that could decide lives.
"Doctors involved in triaging decide which floor (ward) the patient goes to and what kind of care they need. We are seeing that in some cases, patients have experienced symptoms for seven to eight days before reaching the hospital. We are also seeing more cases this year where the disease progresses quickly and patients are dying," a doctor at Victoria Hospital, one of Bengaluru's busiest hospitals in the past week said. "There is a long waiting list for the ICU and there are many who are dying in the wards," another doctor from MS Ramaiah Hospital adds.
Relatives who are trying to find hospital beds for COVID-19 patients are not only struggling for beds, but are also risking infection in this period. "I tested positive after my father's death and I am now recovering at home," says Amarnath, who suffered the anguish of losing his father and also contracting the virus. "The situation last week also left me drained, arguing with BBMP officials for a hospital bed for hours and trying to communicate my father's condition. I hope no one else has to go through this," he shares.
For Amarnath, the first task now is to make a full recovery. "I have a (COVID-19) test on Wednesday and hopefully I test negative in that," he says. With the city reporting over 20,000 cases everyday and with an estimated 10% of them turning up in hospitals, the surge in COVID-19 cases and the desperate search for hospital beds is unlikely to abate soon.