'Before we knew, she was gone': Kin of victims who died due to oxygen leak at Nashik COVID hospital recount tragedy
Those present inside the ward at Nashik’s Zakir Hussain Hospital say they will never forget watching the 24 victims slowly die gasping for oxygen
On the morning of 21 April, Lakhan Sardar, 32, saw his mother-in-law, Asha Sharma, 45, struggle to have tea and biscuits.
“She had been recovering, so it was an encouraging sign,” he said.
A few hours later, though, he watched her struggle to breathe, squirming in agony like a fish out of water. Minutes later, she died.
“She had been on the ventilator after testing positive for coronavirus about five days ago,” he said.
“She was critical. But her health had stabilised over the past two days. At one moment, she seemed like she would make it. The next moment, before we knew what was happening, she was gone.”
Asha was one of the 24 patients that died at Nashik’s Zakir Hussain Hospital — run by the municipal corporation — after an oxygen tanker leaked on Wednesday, and disrupted the supply at around noon for under an hour.
Nashik district collector Suraj Madhare and municipal commissioner Kailas Jadhav did not respond to multiple phone calls by this reporter.
However, after the incident, Nashik divisional commissioner Radhakrishna Game said, “The socket of the oxygen tank broke, which led to leakage in the tank and affected oxygen supply. The hospital staff used jumbo cylinders to help patients. Some patients who could be moved were taken to other hospitals.”
The Maharashtra government has ordered a probe into the matter.
“Patients who were on ventilators at the hospital in Nashik have died. The leakage was spotted at the oxygen tank which was supplying oxygen to these patients. The interrupted supply could be linked to the deaths of the patients in the hospital,” Maharashtra Health Minister Rajesh Tope reportedly said.
According to reports, 13 of the 24 who died at the hospital were above the age of 60 while 11 were aged between 33 and 60 years.
Lakhan said that those present at the hospital ward at the time incident would never forget what they saw.
“Moments after my mother-in-law started gasping for air, each and every other patient started squirming similarly,” he said.
“We called for the nurses, but there were only three of them and they could not attend to every patient. In a matter of minutes, the hospital ward turned into a graveyard. My wife is shaken. Her mother’s death has still not sunk in,” said Lakhan.
Asha used to work as a domestic help in Delhi. In the second week of April, she took a train to come to Nashik to live with her daughter, Pooja, 25, and Lakhan.
“The cases had been going up,” said Lakhan. “We thought she would be taken care of if she stays with us, instead of being alone. My father-in-law had died of TB about five years ago.”
Many of the 24 that died on 21 April came from the economically weaker sections of the society.
Though Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray has announced a compensation of Rs 5 lakh to the kin of the victims, the amount is unlikely to suffice the needs of families such as Sunil Jalate, a transport supervisor in Nashik’s Kewal Park who died in the incident.
“He has two daughters aged 5 and 3,” said his brother in law Avinash Birhade. “My sister has always been a homemaker.”
The responsibility of her two kids now would be Birhade’s now. "I have two kids as well," he said. “I work as a driver earning Rs 10,000 per month. How much can I do with my salary?”
Bharti Nikam, 44, ran a small eatery in Mokhada taluka, 60 kilometers from Nasik. She had lost her husband a year ago, and she looked after the eatery with the help of three of her four daughters.
Belonging to the Warli tribe, Nikam had recently tested positive for the novel coronavirus . She had been feeling breathless, said her daughter, Tejaswini, 22, who works as a staff nurse in Pune.
“We took her to Nasik because Mokhada does not have decent facilities,” she said, adding, “I was with her when the oxygen supply was disrupted. I saw my mother suffocate to death.”
Irfan Shaikh, 36, was at home when the incident took place. But what he witnessed at the hospital afterwards was just as harrowing.
His mother, Salma, 55, had been admitted to the hospital for two weeks before the incident happened. “I was with her through those two weeks,” he said.
“On 21 April, I had come home to get her lunch, and freshen up, when my friend called me and said there was something wrong with the oxygen.”
By the time Irfan rushed back to the hospital, there was chaos everywhere.
“Relatives of patients were shouting, wailing and helplessly crying for help,” he said.
When he saw the scene at the hospital, he feared the worst. And his worst fear came true. His mother had passed away, gasping for oxygen.
“The supply had been restored in less than an hour,” he added. “But it was not enough to save her life. The relatives of the patients were angry that there was no backup to compensate for the technical error that had happened. And rightly so. But no amount of agitation, compensation or apology do any good in times like these. None of it can bring my mother back.”
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