A 24-year-old Spanish tourist who was trekking across the beaches in Gokarna fell off a cliff and sustained grievous injuries in the last week of February. It took over five hours for Marta to get medical help, simply because there are no hospitals in Gokarna equipped to deal with cases of physical trauma. Residents and tourists in Gokarna say the beachside town in Karnataka’s Uttara Kannada district is struggling for good healthcare facilities.
Marta Islas, a resident of Galicia in Spain, had come to Gokarna on February 24 for a vacation. On the afternoon of February 26, Marta set off on a trek from Belekan Beach, and lost her way a bit.
Rocky cliffs are one of the unique characteristics of Gokarna’s terrain and in several areas like Half Moon Beach, the pathways are difficult to navigate without the help of local guides. Marta walked through a narrow road and said she could see the shoreline ahead. Assuming she was on the right path, she began walking ahead only to notice that she was at the edge of a cliff.
“There was a small road ahead and I could see the shore line from the top. I started walking and that’s when I fell off the cliff,” Marta recounts. She landed on a pile of huge rocks below the cliff. Marta was unable to move as she had severely injured her spine, both her ankles were splintered and the her right femur bone was broken.
“I tried calling the emergency service for an ambulance for at least 15 minutes but no one answered. I also tried calling the police and there was no response from their end. I remember meeting a person on Kudle Beach the night before (Tuesday night) and we exchanged numbers. I called him and asked for help,” Marta said.
For close to an hour, Marta waited lying on the rocks amid the excruciating pain she suffered, hoping that help would arrive. After sometime, Rajesh, who ferries tourists across beaches received a message from a few residents about a tourist who was reportedly stranded close to Half Moon Beach.
Rajesh immediately got his boat out and began moving from Half Moon Beach towards Nirvana Beach, looking for Marta. Rajesh, local café owners Kumar, Ganesh and Pradeep and one of Rajesh’s friends Syed and a few others, set off in the boat.
“When we were getting close, we could see Marta waving at us. I could not manoeuvre the boat to reach the rocks and we had to get Marta from the rocks to the boat. Her spine was injured. We didn’t know if it would be worse if we moved her. It was difficult without an ambulance,” said one of the persons who helped rescue Marta.
The group that had gone to rescue Marta saw Mark Playne, a 53-year-old British tourist and frequent visitor to Gokarna, kayaking in the area. “They used Mark’s kayak as a stretcher, used the ropes in the boat to tie me to the kayak and then carried me out of the rocks. They swam with the kayak to the boat and once we were in, I was taken to Belekan Beach,” Marta added.
The rescue team included Robert, Mark, Eden, Sukesh, Ganesh Giri, Kumar Gouda, Shekar Gouda, Rajesh Harikant, Ganesh Harikant, Premanand Harikant, Sayid and Raghu Upadyay.
The struggle for an ambulance
When the boat reached Belakan Beach, the group struggled to find an ambulance as there was no response from the 108 helpline. One of the locals at the spot then called an ambulance driver in Bengaluru, who helped them with a local contact of an ambulance driver in Gokarna.
With no proper stretcher to ferry her into the ambulance, she was carried in the kayak and rushed to the public health centre in Gokarna Town.
“We were at the hospital in Gokarna for about 20 minutes. The doctor said that the injuries were serious and needed to be taken to Kumta (35 km away). We drove her to the hospital in Kumta, where her wounds were dressed but the doctors there said that she needed to be taken to a bigger hospital with better facilities. The ambulance driver was very helpful. He drove very quickly and we brought her to a hospital in Mangaluru in about three hours,” Mark Playne said.
Mark, who has friends in Mangaluru, enlisted their help in narrowing down on a hospital Marta could be taken to. She is currently undergoing treatment at Tejaswini Hospital in Mangaluru.
Marta has four broken bones and a severe spinal injury. She underwent a spinal surgery on March 3.
Speaking to TNM, Uttara Kannada District Health Officer Dr Ashok Kumar told TNM that there are only two ambulances provided by the government in Gokarna and that the locals depend heavily on the private ambulance services.
“Yes, there are times when there are problems with the helplines. We have one ambulance at the PHC and since it was already deployed elsewhere, there may have been slight difficulties,” Dr Ashok Kumar said.
Residents allege that the ambulance services in Gokarna are terrible and the lack of adequate facilities has also resulted in several deaths over the last few years.
“I have been visiting Gokarna for the last 25 years and each beach needs a medical team with at least a stretcher in cases of emergency. The locals and tourists of Gokarna need a hospital and better healthcare,” Mark Playne said.
No proper hospitals
A favourite of tourists from across the globe, Gokarna’s local economy is driven by tourism. Residents say that the lack of healthcare facilities is alarming as there are several cases of locals and tourists being injured or being bitten by snakes, which need immediate medical attention.
Gokarna has one primary health centre with four beds. There is no in-house gynaecologist or doctors to treat injuries. The hospital is also not equipped to deal with severe injuries or even administer care during childbirth. “It is a small PHC. Appointments have not been made. Residents have to go to Kumta, which is about an hour away if they need to get treatment,” said Dr Jagadish, who is deployed at the PHC in Gokarna.
“Women get themselves admitted to the taluk hospital one week ahead of labour. The hospital in Kumta is not well-equipped either and in serious cases, we have to travel to Mangaluru or Manipal for treatment. There are small clinics in Gokarna town near the bus stop but that’s about it,” one of the residents who helped rescue Marta said.
DHO Dr Ashok Kumar said that officials from his office had sent a proposal to the Karnataka government three years ago for establishing a 30-bed hospital in Gokarna. However, with the repeated change in governments over the last two years, the proposal has been on the back-burner.
“The first proposal was sent ahead of the budget three years ago. Then elections happened and the new government did not do anything. Then the government changed and we have sent a fresh proposal now. We hope that some funds will be allocated in the budget this time. We have also urged the MLA Dinakar Shetty to take up the matter in Bengaluru,” DHO Ashok Kumar said.
Officials with the DHO's office said that there have been several cases of deaths due to snake bites over the last few years as there were no proper medical facilities in the town. "Most of Gokarna is forest area and snake bite cases are common. The PHC does not have equipment and by the time the patients are brought to Kumta and transported from there to Mangaluru, they would have passed away. Last year, a boy died when he was being transported in an ambulance. It was a case of snake bite. We want to provide good healthcare but without funds, what can we do?" the official questioned.
The panchayat officials at Gokarna say that they have not maintained a record of number of snake bite deaths or the number of tourist deaths in the area. In the 2020-21 budget presented by Chief Minister BS Yediurappa on Thursday, no allocation was made for a hospital in Gokarna. With the drip in revenue, the state government had slashed funding for several schemes as well. The government, however, allocated funds for a 200-bed hospital in Sirsi, located in Uttara Kannada district.
Lack of navigation signs for tourists
Rajesh, who has been ferrying tourists across beaches has been part of several rescue missions over the last 17 years, says there is also a need for adequate navigation signs for tourists to ensure that they don’t get stranded between treks.
“The government needs to ensure that there are sign boards to mark pathways and ensure that the tourists don’t get lost along the way. There are a lot of issues here. Gokarna is a small town and many locals are scared to speak about the issues fearing backlash from the police if they find out. They will cause problems for their business or in some other way,” one Gokarna’s residents said on condition of anonymity.
TNM tried to contact the Tourism Department, however, could not get a response when the story was published.
With inputs from Megha Kaveri