During the last Shahi Snan of the Maha Kumbh Mela, even as 25,000 members of 13 Akhadas were taking a dip in the Ganges on 27 April, Doctor Manmohan Singh who lives in Haridwar, the venue of the Kumbh, was busy on Whatsapp, forwarding contacts of oxygen suppliers and replying to SOS messages from families of COVID-19 affected people who need hospitalisation.
Dr Singh had requested a colleague in Delhi to care for a patient who had posted an SOS on Twitter. The reply from the resident doctor he had consulted seemed worrisome.
Texts on Singh’s cell phone screen read, “Eighty five (point oxygen saturation level) is less. He can still be protected...Else he will deteriorate and need ICU bed. Isliye ask him to call me or get some medical assistance immediately”.
On 29 April India recorded 3.86 lakh COVID-19 cases; the largest single day spike in a day, anywhere in the world, ever. India's total case load as of 29 April is 1.87 crore.
A gynaecologist by profession, Dr Singh is one among the many COVID-19 frontline workers who have been pooling medical resources on Whatsapp groups ever since India started seeing a massive spike in COVID-19 cases in April, leading to shortage of oxygen, drugs and hospital beds.
This correspondent joined such a Whatsapp group, ‘Oxygen of Life’, created by 60 doctors from across the country, to help those in need. Over the course of five days and nights, The Quint witnessed doctors supporting each other and their patients with oxygen, medicines, medical advice and even medical equipment, all when the cries for help were exploding on social media platforms, Twitter and Facebook.
What prompted the doctors to create the Whatsapp group? It was the last resort, three doctors from the pool, told The Quint in agreement. This when, despite the rise in cases, the Union government had not imposed restrictions on mass gatherings including the Kumbh. Several state governments including Delhi government had imposed lockdown in the third week of April.
When Delhi Gasps, Help Reaches from Uttarakhand
Dr Singh, who joined Oxygen of Life on 24 April, was most perturbed by the Kumbh Mela. In Uttarakhand the number of COVID cases was 1,863 on 31 March. “After the Kumbh, the cases were surging before our eyes,” the doctor rued. Uttarakhand recorded 33,330 active cases on 24 April.
“There wasn’t much I could do on ground especially after the state government imposed a lockdown post 2 pm everyday. I could, however, help people online using my contacts,” Dr Singh, who is part of several national and international virtual groups of doctors associations, said.
On 28 April, a message came up in Oxygen for Life: “Need a bed for a COVID positive relative in Delhi. Can anyone help?” the sender, a resident of Delhi, who did not want to be identified, asked. Dr Singh was the first to respond asking for details.
“Three members of the patient’s family in Delhi needed oxygen beds. After making several calls to several hospitals, I was able to get one of them a bed in a private hospital in Delhi,” Dr Singh told The Quint. The patient confirmed that Dr Singh’s intervention helped his family realise that they need immediate hospitalisation.
“People are scrambling for help and most reach quack doctors who worsen their situation. I started helping online because this was the last resort,” Dr Singh said.
Dr Singh remains on phone at least four hours in the night, to advocate for patients who have failed to get admitted in any hospital. “In my 25 years of service, I had not encountered such helplessness among people. As a human being and as a doctor, I felt the need to help,” he said. There were doctors who spent more than eight hours of their time in the group, he added.
For a 29-year-old psychiatry resident at Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital in Delhi, helping out on Whatsapp was part of her COVID-19 convalescence routine.
Doctor Lends Medical Equipment
The psychiatry resident’s family of four had taken ill with COVID-19. Even as she focused on her ailing mother whose oxygen levels were below 90 points, the resident, who does not want to be identified, also took to Whatsapp to help those who needed medical consultation.
Delhi recorded 24,235 COVID cases on 29 April. The city has close to one lakh active cases.
“Even after doing my MBBS there were times when I needed assistance from a senior MD while helping my mother. I adjusted her medication based on recommendations of senior residents and she became better in a day. That’s when I started helping people in the Oxygen of Life group,” she told The Quint.
However, in the group, she had to go to great lengths to help out.
On 26 April, a message came up in the group: “BiPAP machine ka arrangement ho sakta hai? In Delhi or Noida. Urgent”. The resident was the first to respond. She readily offered a CPAP machine, used for clearing airways just like the BiPAP. Both are tabletop devices.
When The Quint contacted Amit Gaba, a real estate agent based in Delhi, who had posted the SOS, he said, “My friend was in need of the machine. This was the only group where I could ask doctors for help so I posted there”.
The resident doctor had the machine at her home in New Delhi because her father had ordered it years ago to help with his sleep apnea, a sleep disorder involving uneven air flow within the body, so the patient relies on a CPAP machine instead. “We didn’t need the machine and it could have helped someone. I thought they could pick up the machine from my home,” the resident explained.
Gaba’s friend got the BiPAP from somewhere close by, but was touched by a doctor who was ready to welcome them into her home for help.
As a deluge of messages—at least 80 to 90 per day—kept pouring into the group, The Quint found there were also doctors who needed help for their kith and kin.
Bengaluru Doctor Pleads for Help
Dr Omar Farooq of Bengaluru did not know whom to turn to when he was stuck at home with COVID-19. On 29 April, Karnataka recorded the highest single day spike of 39,047 COVID-19 cases. The state has a total of 3.28 lakh active cases as of 29 April.
“The hospital where I work was overflowing with patients and I was asked to stay at home, quarantine and monitor myself,” he told The Quint. But the real tragedy struck when his relatives in Hyderabad fell ill.
Dr Farooq could not arrange for medicines for his uncles. “I tried every contact I had in the city but no one was ready to stick their neck out. Now everyone is on their own and fending for themselves. It is tough,” he said. On 29 April, Telangana had a total of 4.35 lakh active cases. The Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation alone recorded 1,441 cases that day.
In Oxygen of Life, he posted, “Can anyone arrange remdesivir injection in Hyderabad?”. While he got no immediate response, a few medical residents from Delhi reached out with contacts.
“I finally arranged for the drug using these contacts. Fellow doctors helping one another is the only good thing that has come out of this pandemic,” he said. Dr Farooq, however, believes in passing it forward.
He had been offering consultation online. “In several cases where the patient is at home a doctor’s advice is necessary to keep the condition stable and the oxygen level above 93 percentage points. Most people do not get this assistance and their condition worsens,” he explained. Dr Farooq, has been prescribing medicines online through Whatsapp chats.
Though Oxygen of Life has been a lifeline for scores of users and those they help, doctors strongly advocated official COVID-19 helplines. “If the government can get these helplines manned and functional, these can help scores of people. That is what our experience with Oxygen of Life has taught us,” said Dr Suvranker Dutta of All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi.