P A R T - I | SKIMS: A Tale of Fresh Wounds and Salt

I heaved a sigh of relief when my aged mother, who had undergone a surgical procedure for a pacemaker replacement a few hours ago, was shifted from the general ward to the intensive care unit at SKIMS Soura on Wednesday, September 16. A routine check-up of the cardiac gadget on Saturday, September 12, was a bad news. The technician declared the gadget inutile that needed immediate replacement.

However, the two-day stay was an agonizing example of inefficiency, nepotism and negligence that could endanger lives of ordinary citizens admitted in large numbers on daily basis. Here is the story.

The Covid-19 Centre

As a journalist, I have interacted with the director SKIMS a few times in the past. Thinking he might be of some help, I called him up and asked if he could make things a little easier for me without seeking any special privileges though. He advised me to get my mother admitted in Ward-1 without giving any further guidelines.

Upon reaching the ward, a doctor asked us to get my mother tested for Covid-19 which in the light of the pandemic is a pre-requisite before any patient is admitted. He wrote a note on the OPD ticket and asked us to go to the Covid centre for the test.

The scene at the Covid centre was total chaos, with people pushing and nudging each other, trying to get closer to the opening at the wall behind which a hospital staffer was issuing registration cards. Of the four counters meant to cater to the huge rush of people, only one was functional and what was more alarming among the attendants was that Covid-positive patients were roaming freely in the crowd. I became a part of the assemblage to wait for my turn. Frail and haggard, my mother watched from the distance as I was trying to get through the ordeal. All she could do was watch her son helplessly who could fatally fall prey to the dreaded Covid disease. The crowd ahead of me was getting somewhat thinner. As ill luck would have it, my turn came exactly at the moment when the man slid shut the opening, announcing his lunch break. I had to wait for another hour to get the registration card. “What kind of arrangement is this,” shouted an elderly woman as the commotion in the crowd grew. I stood silent almost glued to the wall in order not to lose my turn. The man reappeared after an hour. He took details from my OPD card, fed it into his computer and gave me a yellow card. Before I could seek further guideline from him, a forceful push from behind threw me out of the crowd.

“Swabs are taken in the next room,” a young man accompanying his pregnant wife informed me.

I grabbed a wheelchair nearby and made my mother sit on it but it wouldn’t move beyond the raised pavement. Two young boys quickly came to my help and lifted the wheelchair. I was happy that my ordeal was finally getting over. I was wrong. Two luxury cars appeared out of nowhere and out came a neatly dressed man escorted by four armed guards. Without fulfilling any formality, a hospital security man ushered him straight into the swab room. Within five minutes, he came back and left the scene leaving everyone dumbstruck as if nothing had happened. “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” I reminded myself of the age-old adage. Looking at the condition of my mother, a female staffer took my mother’s swab right in the corridor. I was asked to come tomorrow or visit the hospital website for the report. From 11.00 in the morning to 4.00 in the afternoon, I and my mother had spent five hours to get the registration card and the swab taken. Comparatively, the “VIP” who left a minute ago, had spent mere five minutes.

Next day in the cardiac ward

Around afternoon, I opened the SKIMS website and keyed in the details of my mother to get the result of her Covid test. Much to my delight, she was Covid negative. I rushed her to the hospital. Her admission to the cardiac ward was relatively hassle-free. A doctor made her file and soon a bed in a cubicle was allotted to her. “She’ll be operated upon tomorrow,” the doctor said. My mother walked up to the bed and quietly slept beneath a dirty sheet that had blood stains on it. Her hospital clothing, a green gown sort of a thing, had wrinkles all over as if squeezed out of some machine. It hadn’t been washed properly either. I was surprised to see that the doctors and the paramedical staff were not wearing any protective gear against the Coronavirus. A simple mask and a pair of latex gloves constituted their Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

“Around 25% of the hospital staff has contracted the Coronavirus,” a male nurse startled me.

At around six in the evening, a nurse visited my mother. With an unsympathetic look on her face she grabbed hold of her left hand, pierced a needle into one of the veins in her wrist and installed a connector set. She then fastened some tape around the puncture site and left without saying a word. After a while, she returned with a bottle, connected it with the device she had installed some half an hour ago, adjusted the flow of the fluid, and left. She was as dumb as before. After some 45 minutes, the fluid in the bottle was approaching its finishing line. I rushed to the counter to call the nurse. Sadly, there was none. I hastened my steps back to my mother and before I could figure out the stopping mechanism in the drip line, blood from my mother’s vein was filling the transparent tubing. I turned a small wheel on the regulator and it stopped the blood flow. The nurse appeared in the meantime, plucked the cord from the connector, applied a lid on it and left without saying a word.

Soon a man whose PPE was as scant as that of the other hospital staff appeared with a food trolley and distributed the dinner among the patients. With bowls and plates in their hands, the attendants rushed to collect the meals for their patients. I took a small bowl and collected a little soup for my mother. Beyond a few sips she couldn’t take much and soon leaned back in a relaxed position. “Try to catch some sleep, you’ve a pretty hard day ahead tomorrow,” I told her. She closed her eyes. Soon the lights went out and every bed in the ward became almost invisible under the cover of darkness. The steel tool I sat on gave a squeal every time I made a movement and it would disturb everyone around. I decided to lie down on the floor. Frightening cries filled the ward as many patients who had been operated a day or two ago were writhing in pain. We could hear shuffling, snoring, farting and grunting throughout the night. My mother didn’t sleep a wink. The doctors and the nurses who were supposed to be on duty had disappeared like deer in the woods. Most of the patients and their attendants were up at the crack of dawn because of their nervous excitement.

By11.00AM, the hospital was abuzz with activity when a team of doctors arrived in the ward. In common parlance the visit is termed as “round” and each patient is examined by a team of doctors usually headed by a senior one. The visit reanimated the staff and helped bring some semblance of order in the ward. The doctors after examining my mother advised us to get a few tests done before she could be operated.

At the pacing lab

After completing the tests, we were advised to go to the pacing lab where a middle-aged nurse wearing dirty gloves and an equally dirty uniform received my mother. I wondered why such a facility, where sensitive procedures are performed, should in the first place be located close to the “Emergency” where the overwhelming rush of the patients creates a chaos on daily basis. The nurse ushered my mother to the operation theatre where a young doctor was preparing himself for the operation. The doctor informed it would take more than an hour to complete the procedure and the nurse told me to wait outside in the corridor. After some forty-five minutes, the nurse told me to arrange a stretcher and be ready to carry my mother back to the ward. My brother had brought one from the ward and parked it right along the edge of the corridor. It wasn’t there. “Where the hell did it go,” I asked myself. I began looking frantically in all directions but couldn’t find it. “It’s SKIMS man, you’ve got to take care of things,” the nurse noticing my plight said. “May be you find a stretcher in the Emergency area.”

The stretcher my brother had brought from the ward had been stolen.

Frustrated, I ran towards the Emergency but couldn’t find a vacant stretcher. A few men were moving a woman on a rusty stretcher out of the hospital from the Emergency exit.

“Has the patient been discharged,” I asked one of the attendants. “I need a stretcher for my mother who is undergoing an operation.”

I waited for five odd minutes before they handed the stretcher over. It was smeared with blood and had dark stains all over but it was the only one I could lay my hands on. Without bothering whether a Covid-positive patient had been carried on it, I rushed back to the pacing lab where my mother would soon be done with the procedure. Finally, the door opened and the nurse asked me to take the stretcher inside the operation theatre to carry my mother back to the ward.

I went in and saw my mother lying in a semi-conscious state on the operation table. I aligned the stretcher with the table and a male nurse helped me move her onto it with great difficulty. What the doctor who had just operated upon her told me shook the earth beneath my feet. “Get a bag of flour roughly weighing five kilograms and place it right over the incision,” he advised me. “You could stuff five salt packets of one kilogram each in a bag instead.”

“Salt, flour….five kilograms…,” I asked the doctor, “Why?”

“The pressure will settle the wound quickly,” he replied.

Confused, I moved the stretcher out of the operation theatre and headed towards the ward. Before leaving, the female nurse who had put on dirty gloves asked me if I could give her a pair of fresh ones I had bought for my mother. I obliged and she smiled me off.

Writhing and howling in pain, my mother while calling the doctor a “butcher” cursed her fate and wished if she had died instead of being admitted to a “slaughterhouse”.

“They made cuts into my body while I was still awake,” she told me. The nurse had earlier told me the local anaesthesia given to my mother hadn’t worked successfully.

Her cries cut like a knife my heart and I had no choice but to hold onto my nerves. Soon we were in the cardiac ward. Shifting her from the stretcher to the hospital bed was a traumatic experience. Her clothes soaked in blood narrated the torturous tale she had undergone while she was put under the knife. My brother bought a flour bag matching in weight as advised by the doctor and I placed it right on the site of the wound. It slipped. Every time we placed it on her right shoulder, it would slip. My brother bartered it with a bag filled with salt packets from a woman whose father had similarly been operated the night before. It stayed on the wound. “Salt and wound don’t complement each other perfectly for the heck of it,” I murmured to myself.

In the meantime, she felt the urge to pee and wanted to go to the washroom. The nurse disallowed and advised that a urinary catheter be used to drain the urine. I’m not sure if the nurse took all the precautions while inserting the catheter but my mother didn’t feel comfortable at all though the need to go to the washroom was temporarily averted.

Soon a technician came with an ECG machine to check if the pacemaker was functioning within the given parameters. It looked alright. At around six in the evening, a doctor advised to shift her to the ICU for better treatment.