Pramila Minz was at work at about 9:30 am on June 10, when she received a frantic call from her sister. Their frail 55-year-old mother Gurubari had lost consciousness and the family feared she’d had another stroke. “Our life has not been the same since that morning,” said Pramila. Over the next 24 hours, the sisters would be turned down by not one but six major Delhi hospitals before Gurubari, who was showing signs of possible COVID-19 infection, was finally admitted, only after a harrowing journey, and after people raised a ruckus on Twitter, contacted several doctors and requested a Delhi MLA to intervene.
Pramila, an Adivasi woman in her late 20s, moved to Delhi five years ago from Rajgangpur village in Sundergarh district, Odisha. She lives in Kotla Mubarakpur in south Delhi and works as domestic help for Amritika Phool’s family in Gurugram, about 25 km away.
When Pramila told Phool about Gurubari’s medical emergency, Phool immediately called for an ambulance and arranged a taxi to send Pramila home. It took Pramila an hour to reach, but there was still no sign of the ambulance. The sisters decided to not lose any more time, put their unconscious mother in an auto and reached the nearest hospital, Safdarjung, just 3 km away, by 11 am. The doctors immediately recommended a CT Scan and an X-ray for Gurubari. It took around three hours to complete the procedures and get the reports. Pramila was then devastated to hear that the hospital had no beds available to admit her mother. “They said we should try at AIIMS instead. I folded my hands and begged them to help us, but they refused to even provide an ambulance,” she said. The sisters were at a loss on how to transport their unconscious mother to another hospital.
Phool had been trying to arrange taxis for them, but most taxis either cancelled trips to COVID-designated hospitals or refused to carry three people together. Pramila finally found an auto to take them to AIIMS.
At AIIMS, the hospital staff did not help the sisters move their mother on to a stretcher. They finally dragged a stretcher to their auto and lifted Gurubari onto it themselves. However, the doctors refused to provide any test or treatment at AIIMS, without assigning any reason. Again, the sisters had to search for an alternative.
They headed to Lady Hardinge hospital, 10 km away in central Delhi, again by auto. The staff at Lady Hardinge conducted a few tests on Gurubari, including a COVID-19 test, and referred her to the emergency ward. They were then told that there were no vacant beds in the hospital, and were referred to GB Pant hospital, 5 km away.
GB Pant hospital is no longer a designated COVID-19 hospital and refused to admit Gurubari, a possible coronavirus patient. They referred her to the nearby LNJP hospital instead. Pramila begged the doctors to let her know what had happened to her unconscious mother, but got no answer. At LNJP, once again, they were turned away due to unavailability of beds.
Phool managed to convince a taxi driver to take the women to their next destination, Ram Manohar Lohia (RML) hospital, 7 km from LNJP. Pramila followed the taxi to RML in an auto. By then, it was almost 10 pm. “The staff at RML did nothing to help. I had to run from one ward to another just to speak to the medical officer and other doctors,” said Pramila. Gurubari was refused admission here as well, as at the time RML was a designated COVID-19 hospital and she had no test result to show that she was a patient.
Phool advised them to try again at Safdarjung hospital. This time, they were refused entry at the gate itself. It was now 2:30 am on June 11, and the three women waited outside Safdarjung hospital all night, hoping things would get better.
Help comes after calls amplified on social media
Amidst all this, Phool was feeling helpless at home. Her family had not been doing well either. Earlier that day, their dog had passed away. They had little time to deal with their grief before Pramila’s mother’s health needed immediate attention.
Phool remained glued to her phone all day, checking up on the three women. When she realised that it was taking them longer than expected, she decided to take charge. She was planning to head to the hospital when her son, concerned, reminded her that both he and his father suffer from comorbidities which made them prone to COVID infection, and suggested that she not take a decision that could put them all at risk, but carefully weigh the options.
Phool then decided to extend help remotely, as best as she could. She posted a call for help on her Facebook page, which some of us took note of, and then got onboard. We stayed up all night to reach out to the authorities, amplify the issue and get immediate intervention.
Things finally started moving when we managed to get in touch with Somnath Bharti, the ruling Aam Aadmi Party’s MLA from the Malviya Nagar constituency. At about 9 am on June 11, he assured support and headed to LNJP hospital. On his insistence, LNJP agreed to admit Gurubari, but the hospital wanted a signed request on stamp paper from him to proceed. For this, Pramila made another 30-km round trip from LNJP to Malviya Nagar and back to collect the stamp paper.
Phool underscored the importance of having access to a representative like Bharti. “Without his help that day, we do not know what could have happened. We might have even lost Gurubari in those dire circumstances,” she said, and Pramila agrees. However, she also cautions that getting access to local representatives and higher authorities is not easy. “Imagine the fate of the hundreds and thousands of people who cannot reach someone in power. How will they survive?” she asked.
Pramila sighed in relief when I spoke to her in Odia. When she sat with her sister and ailing mother outside Safdurjung hospital all of June 10-11 night, she had never felt so lost, unsafe, and helpless in this city.
“For people like us who are not from here, it is not an easy affair to run around the city asking for help, especially at night,” she said. She had never had to stay outdoors at such odd hours, and having to spend an entire night in such dire circumstances has really shaken her.
Pramila recalls wailing, “Koi meri maa ko bacha lo (someone, save my mother)” in all of the hospitals. She kept asking the doctors if they could do anything at all to save her mother, but got no answer. She lamented that no one in these hospitals cared enough to just reassure them once that their mother will live. No one bothered to offer even a glass of water, and the three of them had had nothing to eat all day. That day, she felt there is no humanity left in Delhi and its people. “I cannot imagine how to describe this apathy and this cruelty. What did we do to deserve this? We have only been minding our own business all this time,” she said.
A continuing saga of mismanagement and lack of information
The Minz’s trials did not end with Gurubari being admitted to LNJP hospital. It has been difficult to get updates about Gurubari’s condition. “The sisters were not even given a receipt of Gurubari’s admission, or details of which ward or ICU she was sent to,” said Phool, who has been diligently following up with the hospital on phone every day. “It was only through an ambulance driver that the sisters had befriended that we got to know that she was sent to the ICU,” she added.
Phool’s calls on the designated phone number for LNJP’s ICU unit, where Gurubari was admitted, are often unanswered. Phool repeatedly asks for vital statistics readings, feeding details, oxygen levels, and most importantly the COVID-19 status report. The responses, however, are vague and generic, along the lines of ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘improved’, ‘ same’, ‘worsened’, etc.
Gurubari was tested for COVID-19 at the Lady Hardinge hospital on June 10 and at LNJP Hospital on June 12. On June 13, the test reports from Lady Hardinge showed that Gurubari had tested positive for the viral infection. Later, Pramila received calls from the health ministry, who said they had to take Gurubari for immediate quarantining and treatment. They informed the ministry that Gurubari was already admitted at LNJP. Pramila also received a call for contact tracing purposes that same day, and informed the officials that the family was duly self-isolating at home.
LNJP said that the COVID-19 reports will be ready within 2-3 days. Meanwhile, Gurubari’s potassium levels and blood pressure were falling. On June 15, we were informed that she was receiving supplementary support for her stroke, while also being treated as a possible COVID-19 patient. She had been shifted to a different ICU that day.
On June 16, four days after the test, Phool managed to access the LNJP online link for Gurubari’s COVID-19 test report, but the field for the test result was left blank. This despite the fact that the report should have been available even sooner than the usual 2-3 days as the patient was admitted in the ICU. A doctor had informed us that most patients in the ICU that Gurubari was admitted to had tested positive.
“It is almost like a hide-and-seek situation here. We have been left in the lurch trying to put the pieces of a puzzle together,” said Phool.
On June 18, LNJP finally told Phool that Gurubari had tested positive for COVID-19. But, no report was shared. “It is quite possible that the samples have gone missing, something seems amiss,” said Phool. Dr Rahul, the then doctor-in-charge, remained unavailable for further clarification on this.
Gurubari’s condition remains critical. As of June 19, Dr Hina at LNJP confirms that she is on high flow oxygen supply, her blood pressure and vitals are not stable and she is being fed through a tube. On being asked about the COVID test report, she explained that the result is only shared online with the consultant-in-charge. When Phool requested access to the report, she was asked to leave her number so that the doctors would later send her the document on WhatsApp, when time permitted.
“We cannot predict anything, but we are doing what we can,” said Dr. Hina.
Gurubari had previously suffered a stroke, and Pramila’s decision to move to Delhi along with her parents was also to access proper physiotherapy sessions for her mother. These sessions ended with the national lockdown imposed to control the COVID pandemic. Pramila says her parents never really stepped out after the lockdown. Only the sisters ventured out to buy supplies and took due care to sanitise properly. They barely knew anyone in Kotla so there was no opportunity to socialise. Yet, their mother caught the infection.
The Minz family moved to Delhi with the hope of better healthcare services, only to be left traumatised during the worst public health crisis in recent memory. As Gurubari battles for her life, it is clear that their ordeal could have been averted if Delhi’s state and central-government run hospitals were truly prepared for the COVID crisis, as both governments have claimed. The question that haunts us now is, who do we hold accountable?