Amid fear, chaos and rising tempers, eleven doctors kept their nerves intact to save 300 infants admitted at GB Pant hospital during recent floods. Saima Bhat talks to the team of doctors who managed to keep the hospital running despite being stranded and submerged
At 7 PM, exactly sixteen hours after Kashmir’s lone children’s hospital GP Pant got submerged in 20 feet of water on September 7, an army rescue boat came to relocate the patients. That night there were 11 doctors, 63 attendants, around 300 patients and more than 600 attendants inside the hospital. The question that disturbed almost everyone was who will board the boat first!
With the sun starting to set over the inundated buildings in posh-Sonwar, the lone rescue boat was eager to make a quick exit. “I will take only six most critical patients and one attendant each. Anything beyond that will capsize the boat,” announced the army man.
The decision to pick the most critical ones was left to Dr Sartaj, registrar of pediatric ICU, and senior-most among the 11 doctors present in the hospital that night, who had already taken charge of the situation after all communications got snapped. “It was the most challenging situation I have ever faced in my life,” recalls Dr Sartaj.
Dr Sartaj called his junior Dr Iram, a registrar in Neonatal ICU, to help him identify the six most critical patients who need to be saved first. “You can’t imagine how chaotic it was inside the hospital at that time as everybody wanted to be on that boat,” says Dr Iram.
Without wasting any time Dr Iram rushed to the ICU and handpicked six critical patients. “The most challenging job was to walk those patients through a thousand eager eyes that were looking at them helplessly,” recalls Dr Iram.
But the transfer did not go as smooth as Dr Iram would have hoped. “It was like reliving scenes from the Titanic movie. As I walked with those six patients towards the boat, people turned hostile. They almost tore my clothes, pulled my hair and my chappal got ripped off from one side. But I did not panic as saving those lives was more important at that time,” says Dr Sartaj.
Later Dr Iram came to know that three of the six patients evacuated that night died because of hypoxia – a drop in the oxygen pressure.
With electricity getting snapped within fifteen minutes after water entered GB Panth hospital, it was chaos all around.
“When your life care system works on electricity you can imagine what chaos it will bring if you don’t have any alternative electric supply. Everything – ventilators, oxygen supply, warmers work on electricity and suddenly they stopped working. We had to make alternatives but the generator was also on the ground floor and submerged,” says Dr Iram.
Instead of ventilators patients were shifted to Ambu bags, parents of hypothermia patients were asked to make the skin to skin contact with their children and when infusion sets stopped working infusions were given manually.
During the initial hours when the water level was of ankle level, Dr Iram says they managed to shift some 10 – 14 oxygen cylinders which later provided them support for about 20 hours. Otherwise, the death toll would have been higher.
During the intervening night of Sunday and Monday, three infants died in the hospital who were already critical. Their death was expected and the concerned guardians didn’t create any hue and cry in the hospital, say doctors at GB Panth hospital.
Dr Sartaj recalls how a rumour about one of the hospital walls developing cracks created panic, “you can imagine our condition at that time. Our lives were really in danger.”
The situation turned worst when the oxygen plant, located on the ground floor stopped working. There were scenes of desperation and helplessness all around. Attendants thought that their kids are going to die because of a lack of oxygen.
And to make things worse for Dr Sartaj and his team was the cries of help coming from Indira Nagar, a locality adjacent to the hospital. “We could hear people begging for help in desperation as the water level was rising. We wanted to help but we were as helpless as anybody else,” says Dr Sartaj.
“Water had already inundated the 1st floors of their houses and people were crying for help from the attic of their houses. Family members of a neighbour, on the left side of the hospital, were shouting for help from their half burnt house and then the cries of a local who had climbed a tree in desperation; all these things added to the panic,” says Dr Iram. She was confident enough that her team will do every possible thing to save lives in the hospital.
All phone networks were working till Sunday afternoon and till then all hospital staff were making calls to government helpline numbers and the concerned authorities to make the early rescue, as most of the patients in the hospital are admitted in serious condition. But nobody came to their rescue even if the hospital is a tertiary care hospital.
“Till Sunday 4 PM, I was continuously in touch with Medical Superintendent, Principal of the hospital, Divisional Commissioner and even CM but everybody was helpless at that moment. Finally when my principal said all we can do for you is to pray for your safety! I realized whatever we have to do is to do on our own,” says Dr Sartaj.
Dr Iram says Gupkar road was visible, vehicles were moving on that road. Army boats were passing through the hospital but they were rescuing their officers first, located in the Badami Bagh camp. It was only on Sunday evening, at about 7 PM that an army boat came to this hospital and offered to relocate seriously ill patients.
For the next three days, the same hue and cry became the norm till all patients and attendants were rescued who otherwise were blaming doctors for not informing about the flood warning and delayed rescue operation.
For the next three days, all attendants and staff of the hospital were hungry and thirsty as the two canteens of the hospital were submerged. Some doctors had few biscuits and for all those hours they were having those biscuits in bits and pieces, saline water and raw rice mixed with Tang juice to remain energized.
On Monday afternoon, the rescue operation was started but Dr Iram is not sure if the rescue was done by the army or state police. She says the local SHO was present in one boat. The rescue operation was started with two boats. Each boat had the capacity of 16, they used to rescue 8 people and the other 8’s were the rescue team.
“I came out on the first boat as the administration at Army hospital had conveyed through those rescue teams that they are not having specialists available in their hospital. So I along with one more doctor and 6 more patients shifted on the first boat on Monday afternoon.”
The rescue operation continued till Wednesday evening, as it was done through two boats only. All patients were shifted to the Army hospital and the team of doctors also followed their patients in that hospital. Later on, some of the stable patients were discharged and others were treated in the army hospital by the same doctors till Thursday evening.
Among all those patients eight infants died at the Army hospital taking the total death toll to 11.
While in the Army hospital, the doctors of GB Panth hospital planned their duty plan themselves, who were already doing their duty day and night. And to make things better Dr Sartaj got all patients divided into three wards, ICU – where critical patients were kept, Crisis – where stable patients were kept and the pediatric ward where somewhat stable patients were shifted from ICU.
Problems continued in the Army hospital as well which otherwise is a family hospital and not equipped to tackle such a load. “We didn’t have any proper oxygen supply, infants need a proper amount of oxygen. Even if they had generators but they were running short of fuel so we had an electric supply for three hours which was followed by three hours cut,” says Dr Sartaj.
Later on Dr Sartaj, Dr Iram and Dr Tasleem left for their homes on Thursday when the army hospital got their specialists from outside the state.
Dr Muneer Masoodi, MS of this hospital says it was only GB Panth hospital which continued to function despite getting submerged because of these doctors. He says, “His team of doctors should get state awards for saving the lives of almost 300 patients.”