While the 2nd wave of Covid-19 is mercifully behind India now, the danse macabre it brought in its wake, during March-May, will continue to haunt many citizens for a lifetime. A first-person account of a Covid survivor in Delhi brings you the situation up close:
The first symptoms showed up benignly: a mild fever of 100 degreeF (38C) and a gentle cough. But I had read enough about Covid to take these signals mildly. I isolated myself from the rest of my family, kept a bottle of sanitizer close and called the local chemist to deliver a pulse Oxy-meter and some medicines.
Warning signs came early. My calls to various pathology test labs for a swab sample to determine the infection were politely turned down. Most labs had suspended their services due to a massive surge. It was after two days that I was able to get myself tested at a hospital unit; the results took another two days.
Meanwhile, I consulted a doctor who specialized in internal medicine and treated Covid patients. I dutifully followed his prescriptions. The brands prescribed were not available at chemist shops but their generic alternatives could be managed. I read every information related to Covid-19 available on the Internet during isolation. I was sure by fifth-sixth day, things will take a positive turn.
But that was not to be.
My fever shot up to 103 degree F on the fifth day. Oxygen level, hitherto 99%, slipped to 95 intermittently. These were not happy signals. I consulted another senior doctor who added a few new medicines, including a cortico-steroid called Medrol. I was told to get back in two days if symptoms did not improve. They did not.
The new doctor advised admission to a hospital. His own facility, he apologized, was packed to capacity. He suggested in case we did not get a hospital bed that day itself, we should take an oxygen concentrator on rent. With my Oxygen levels dwindling, we arranged a concentrator. It was a good decision as by midnight, my O2 score fell off the red-mark 92.
The next day, we began the hunt for a hospital bed afresh. By afternoon, the severity of situation became clear to us. There were no beds available, leave alone a room, in either state or private hospitals across Delhi. Having called at least 50 hospitals and other leads provided by friends, little positive came out. Interestingly, I received a few calls from medical touts who promised a bed with oxygen for Rs 1 Lakh at non-descript facilities. Some offered to set up similar facilities at our place itself with an attendant for a hefty sum. I ignored the medical mafia calls.
I sought help from some of my resourceful friends. One of them posted an SOS on social media site Twitter. This was picked up by common friends and further amplified. By evening, a few windows opened. I was told the Delhi government had set up new Covid facilities and beds were available there. Friends were coordinating with officials to get me admitted there. By then, I was completely dependent on the concentrator for breathing. My family called up an ambulance to take me to any Covid facility that is finalised. My housing society, which had stored oxygen cylinders, offered them during transportation. It looked that things had begun to fall in place.
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Yamuna Sports complex, a large stadium turned into a Covid facility, was finally zeroed in on. I left home with my brother by my side, but as I stepped toward the society elevator, my vision blurred. Suddenly, there was darkness all around. When I opened my eyes again, I was sitting inside an ambulance, with a mask linked to an oxygen cylinder and people looking over me. I had blacked out and was lifted into the vehicle for oxygen feed. I realised the grim situation I was in. At the sports Complex, after some paperwork and running around, I was wheeled in to my assigned bed.
The set-up looked impressive at first sight. The hall was air-conditioned lined with foldable cots as beds, with brand new oxygen concentrators by their side. Young helpful volunteers moved around with tea, eatables and food packets. However, in an hour of my stay, I realized there were no doctors to be seen. “They would come if there is an emergency,” a fellow patient assured me. And then my oxygen concentrator blipped. Having experienced a blackout not long ago, I panicked. None of the uniformed volunteers knew how to fix the machine. Thankfully, a patient detached a tube, filled it with mineral water and re-started it. I knew the set-up was what it had been labeled: temporary.
The phone signals were weak but I managed to message my family about the ‘Covid camp’ condition. The answer was reassuring: the hunt for a proper hospital was still on. An hour before midnight, I got a call from my wife. She was on her way with an oxygen cylinder to shift me to a hospital in Noida, over 15 km from Delhi border. An editor friend had pulled all stops to get a room with oxygen facility. No ambulance was willing to cross the state border, hence she was coming with my brother.
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The guards and front staff at the hospital told us they were not taking any new patients as there were no beds; even the stretchers had been used as beds in the emergency unit. Another rounds of phone calls and an hour later, I was ushered in. In the few minutes that I took the oxygen mask off, the levels reached dangerously low again. But the expert staff managed the situation in a jiff. For once, since the blackout, I felt safe. I was told by an attendant not to take off the oxygen mask, even while using washroom. I was provided a nasal fork pipe during lunch and dinner.
The travails for the family hadn’t ended yet. They were to arrange Remdesivir injections. Each vial was being sold in black market for Rs 25-50,000 apiece. Then, there were fake injection too in circulation. Somehow these were arranged, two of them from a logistic facility in Manesar, Haryana, some 70 km from the hospital.
Five days, some 150 pills, and two dozen injections later, I was able to walk for a few minutes without the oxygen support. Although steroids fueled my appetite, I lost about 20 pounds. A deep breath took some effort, so did my visit to the attached washroom. I felt tired and my voice came out like a croak. Yes I felt lucky to have just about scraped through.
Upon my discharge after a week’s stay, with much gratitude for friends and family, I felt as if I was stepping into a new world. Travelling home with a precautionary mask on, I rolled down the window. An unseasonal drizzle had brought the temperature down and the fresh air on my face felt good. A song began to play on my lips noiselessly.
PS: During my recovery at home, I kept thinking about thousands of the unlucky ones who could not manage a bed, or arrange the elusive injections; those who stood helplessly to see their dear ones slipping away. It made me choke. I was brought up in New Delhi and was a witness to, as a patient also, its healthcare infrastructure transformed from a few stinky government-run hospitals of the 1970s to private multi-specialty facilities post-1990s. I never believed for a second that an invisible bug could bring this capital infrastructure to its knees in a matter of days. I prayed we had learnt our lessons.