City without ICUs: A desperate husband, a dying wife in Srinagar

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When the Jammu and Kashmir administration asked people not to panic amid the deathly second wave of Covid-19, Khurshid Khan, 68, began an hours-long search for an Intensive Care Unit (ICU) bed to save his wife. 

Rifat Ara, his 65-year-old wife, was suffocating in a crammed Covid-19 hospital ward on Thursday evening as her husband was racing against death’s timeline. 

When Khan –  himself a Covid-19 patient – couldn’t procure Remdesivir, an antiviral drug, within time, the plummeting oxygen levels of Ara demanded an Intensive Care Unit (ICU) treatment. Urgently.

Almost simultaneously — one of the top men in the Jammu and Kashmir administration was assuring people it was ready to “shoulder the situation” if things spiral out of control adding that “some people … want to pretend that COVID related management is weak and cannot meet the demand.”

Ara had shown symptoms on 23 April when she complained of severe breathlessness and body ache, following which she was admitted to Srinagar’s Chest Disease Hospital. 

As her condition didn’t improve, the doctors asked her husband to arrange Remdesivir. Doctors, however, had no clue where he could find the antiviral drug: neither hospitals nor pharmacies had it. 

A desperate husband soon exhausted his resources and ended up putting out an SOS call on Twitter via a relative. 

Calls came in; not help. 

On the afternoon of 29 April – the same day the administration said it was ready and prepared – Ara’s health deteriorated further and the doctors believed they were losing her. “After it became difficult to maintain her oxygen level, the doctors suggested that we shift her to an ICU,” Khan said. 

But the summer capital was largely out of ICU beds for Covid-19 patients. Jawahar Lal Nehru Memorial Hospital, one of the Covid-19 facilities, had one vacancy in the city of more than a million people. 

Khan rushed to secure it; but another critical patient reached before him, he said.

The Kashmir Walla had reported that day that all the Covid-19 hospitals were jam-packed and refused to take in any patient on ICU that Thursday. On 28 April, SKIMS as well as CD hospital had zero vacancies of ICUs, according to the daily bulletin. The next day, SKIMS Soura had one vacant ICUs and a day later, it was again zero at both the hospitals.

The second wave of the coronavirus grappled in late March and has since overawed Kashmir’s fragile healthcare infrastructure. The erstwhile state now records nearly 4,000 cases a day; over 1,000 in Srinagar alone. 

Khan knew that the end was nearing. When he appealed to the doctors again, the CD Hospital reached out to Sher-e-Kashmir Institute of Medical Science (SKIMS) – Kashmir’s main tertiary care hospital – to refer Ara.

The SKIMS was the last hope for Ara’s survival. But the hospital administration didn’t agree to take her in, said Naveed Shah, the medical superintendent of the CD hospital. “They (SKIMS) told me: ‘we have no beds available.’ There were no ICU beds anywhere,” Shah told The Kashmir Walla.

That evening, A. G. Ahangar, the director of SKIMS, flanked Lt. Gov.’s advisor Baseer Khan and Director Health Services Mushtaq Ahmed Rather, at a presser called hurriedly at 9:40 pm. 

The advisor – a retired bureaucrat – said that the administration has already put in place the contingency plans to enhance the infrastructure. “If demand goes up, we are ready to shoulder the situation,” he said. 

In anguish, Ara’s husband said “the administration is lying”. “There is nothing available in the hospital, it is all messed up,” he said. “I had to knock ten doors to get an oxygen cylinder.”

When nothing seemed to be working out, Khan raised another SOS on Twitter, widening his hunt for an ICU bed. More calls came, but no one could help me, he said.

Ara was in pain, yet whispering. “She told me she had a body ache, and asked me to turn her around,” Khan recalled. “She was in pain.”

At 3 am on Friday, Khan walked out of the ward, into the darkness to sit by himself. Moments later, his phone rang – Ara had died, gasping for breath.

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