For three days, Goldi Patel, 25, went from hospital to hospital in New Delhi’s oppressive summer heat, frantically trying to find one that would keep her husband breathing.
Four hospitals turned away Patel, who is seven months pregnant with the couple’s first child, before she finally found one that would take him. But the level of care at Sardar Patel Covid Care Centre and Hospital, a makeshift pandemic facility on the outskirts of the capital, is so lacking that her husband is begging to leave.
Around Sadanand Patel, 30, people are dying. He has barely any contact with doctors, and limited medicine. With 80% of his lungs already infected, he’s terrified of what happens if his condition gets worse.
“I am very scared,” Sadanand said Saturday from his hospital bed, through labored breathing. “If my health gets critical I don’t think they will be able to save me.”
As coronavirus cases spiral in India, the country’s health care system has been stretched beyond breaking point. Beds, oxygen and medical workers are in short supply. Some Covid patients are dying in waiting rooms or outside overwhelmed clinics, before they have even been seen by a doctor.
Only some Covid-19 patients manage to get admitted into India’s overburdened hospitals. But once inside, some face a different kind of terror: an absence of medical care or supplies as people die around them.
Race against time
In February officials ordered the closure of the Sardar Patel Covid Care Centre, believing India had conquered the virus.
When it became abundantly clear that was not the case, the 500-bed facility reopened on April 26, to chaotic scenes.
Local media reported that despite huge lines of patients outside the hospital, far fewer people were admitted than capacity. Senior officials from the Health Ministry and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, who run the center, did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.
Sadanand was admitted the day after the hospital opened. When Goldi visited a few days later, the facility was crowded, she said.
In the cavernous, warehouse-style facility, some patients lie on beds made of cardboard. There is limited medicine, and Sadanand said he had only interacted with a doctor once or twice in three days since he was admitted last Tuesday. He watched two men in beds nearby scream for medicine only to die within hours when their oxygen appeared to run out.
By Saturday, his fifth day in the center, at least five people around him had died, he said. One dead body lay on the bed next to his for hours before it was removed.
India’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare said last month that it would “swiftly” expand the facility to 2,000 beds with oxygen supplies to help address the city’s lack of hospital space. About 40 medical doctors and 120 expert paramedics had already been dispatched to the center.
But that target doesn’t tally with Sadanand’s experience.
“The government thinks that they have opened this hospital, the patients here are getting treated,” he said. “But actually, nothing like that is happening.”
The doctors check on patients infrequently, Sadanand said. He’s worried that if he needed medical attention, he would be too ill to call for help. Sometimes he talks with a patient in a nearby bed who advised him to get out of the center if he feels even slightly better.
“You will die lying on your bed because there’s no one to call the doctor,” he said.
Others have had the same experience. Sarita Saxena told CNN Friday her brother-in-law was admitted to the center after being turned away by at least seven hospitals. She doesn’t believe any doctors are treating the patients – the only people caring for them are family and friends. Those people risk catching Covid as there are no walls within the center to stop the spread.
Others outside the hospital are so worried about the lack of care that they are trying to get their relatives discharged.
Sadanand says he is so scared he repeatedly asked a doctor to shift him to another hospital. He made the same plea to his wife – but no where else will take him, Goldi says.
“He was asking me to take him away from this place, that he’ll stay home, he doesn’t feel good here and he’s very scared,” Goldi said Saturday.
“I kept trying to explain that if you stay here, at least you will get oxygen.”
Dwindling oxygen supplies
Lala Lajpat Rai Memorial Medical College (LLRM), a hospital in the city of Meerut, in the neighboring state of Uttar Pradesh, is inundated.
People are everywhere – on stretchers, on tables, on the floor – moaning and desperate for oxygen. There are about 55 beds for 100 patients, according to hospital staff. There are just five doctors. Some patients lie on the floor.
One of those is 32-year-old mother-of-two Kavita, who has no last name. She’s been on the floor of the hospital for four days, struggling to breathe. She says she hasn’t received any oxygen, and has seen 20 people die.
“I’m getting anxious,” she said. “I’m scared that I’ll stop breathing,” she said.
Oxygen is a scarce commodity in India, which has reported more than 2.5 million cases in the past week.
Other countries have sent oxygen cylinders and concentrators to India that can help produce oxygen, and the government is ferrying supplies around the country using its train network. Dr. Harsh Vardhan, the Minister for Health and Family Welfare, said Thursday there was adequate oxygen in the country and no need to panic.
“Oxygen was available in adequate quantity earlier and now there is even more,” he told reporters outside a hospital. “We have so many more sources of oxygen available in the country … Whoever needs oxygen should get it.”
But hospitals are still struggling.
Some hospitals have tweeted SOS messages, tagging official accounts as they plead for more oxygen to help patients gasping for air.
Family members of patients queue for hours outside oxygen refilling centers, holding empty oxygen cylinders. Twelve people – including a doctor – died at one New Delhi hospital Saturday after the facility ran out of oxygen, according to Dr. SCL Gupta, the medical director of Batra Hospital.
Some hospitals have warned patients that if they want to be admitted for treatment, they will have to source their own oxygen.
“We have now told patients before admitting them that they may have to get their own oxygen supply in case of emergency if they are admitted here,” Poonam Goyal, a senior doctor at Panchsheel Hospital in Delhi’s north said Saturday.
Outside LLRM, relatives of patients paced back and forth as they waited for news. Inside, LLRM administrator Dr. Gyanendra Kumar said the hospital had enough oxygen, but they were short of staff.
“We are not refusing anyone,” he said. “Before coronavirus, I have never seen a crisis like this, but this crisis I think we are managing properly.”
Lack of medicine
Although Goldi Patel is relieved her husband is getting oxygen, she’s worried about his overall condition – without medicine to treat his lung infection, damage has spread to 80% of his lungs, a CT scan shows.
Whenever he sits up, he starts coughing violently and pain tears across his chest, she said. In hospital, he’s given food, water and oxygen but little medicine – hospital staff gave him antibiotics after she told staff she would kill herself. On Friday, she went into the center to bring medicine to her husband, who is the sole earner for their family.
“Along with oxygen, the treatment is just as necessary,” Sadanand said. “You can’t just live on the hope that if you get oxygen you’ll be fine.”
Dr. Chandrasekhar Singha, a senior lead consultant in pediatric critical care at Madhukar Rainbow Children’s Hospital in New Delhi, said a patient with infection on 80% of their lungs would need to have their infection treated with antivirals, steroids and antibiotics, on top of oxygen. “By giving oxygen you are buying some time,” he said, speaking generally, adding that 80% infection was “not looking good.”
Every two or three hours, Goldi calls her husband. They only talk for a few minutes before his breathing becomes labored.
“It feels dangerous,” she said. “I don’t make him speak too much. I am tense all day.”
Goldi is scared for herself – she’s seven months pregnant and doesn’t know whether she has Covid. She has no symptoms, but hasn’t been tested as that would cost 900 rupees ($12). Still, she says, she needs to support her husband. Both of their parents live in Uttar Pradesh, and they have no other support.
Both are frustrated at the authorities’ ineffective response. Sadanand said that if he thought he was being treated properly, he wouldn’t have involved his wife at all.
“If someone was admitted and their treatment had started, then you would never want your pregnant wife to go outside during Covid cases to (try to find a facility) for you,” he said. “In your mind, you will always be worried about what happens if she gets coronavirus.”
Julia Hollingsworth wrote and reported from Hong Kong. Sandi Sidhu reported from Hong Kong. Tanya Jain reported from Gurgaon, India. Elizabeth Joseph and Clarissa Ward reported from Meerut, India. Vedika Sud, Manveena Suri, Swati Gupta and Esha Mitra reported from New Delhi, India.