Life hangs by an oxygen tube in Nepal

Covid patients in Seti Hospital.

The situation at Seti Provincial Hospital in Dhangadi is much like the rest of the country. It is at breaking point with the lack of beds and oxygen

Although the number of infections has gone down now, and the hospital waiting list is shorter, the crisis is far from over. Families of patients still have to bring beds from home, and sleep in the corridor or verandah. 

There were 57 critically ill patients at the Seti Hospital despite having only having 55 beds. Some beds have up to three patients from the same family, and as their symptoms got worse they would be shifted to the emergency ward where all 16 beds were already occupied.

The hospital has to treat patients not only from Kailali district, but from a catchment area that stretches up to Baitadi, Humla and Bajura in Far-western Province. As a journalist, I was reporting on this grim situation when I started having symptoms myself on 12 May.

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I live alone in my rented room, and at night I started having a fever and body aches. I had received both doses of Covshield, so the symptoms subsided and I decided to visit my family since my mother was worried sick about me. 

But even before leaving, I got a frantic call from my cousin at 10PM on 18 May. He was in Dhangadi with his 24-year-old sister who was sick with Covid-19 because by the time they got her PCR result, her condition had deteriorated, with the blood oxygen level at 34. 

“We are at Sarathi hospital, we have to find oxygen as soon as possible,” he said.

I immediately called an acquaintance for help, who told me he had a small cylinder at home. I returned to my room, where I spent the night trying to arrange unsuccessfully for additional oxygen.

In the morning, I got a call from my cousin. “Our oxygen cylinder is almost empty.”

I tried to reassure him that I was looking, but I was having doubts. I called a police officer whose relative had succumbed to Covid-19 only a day ago. He had half a cylinder left, but his place was too far away. He asked me to find an empty cylinder which could be filled up by his friends at an oxygen plant.

That would take time, so I was on my phone calling everyone I knew. I called a senior journalist in Kailali. He was unreachable. I called his wife who couldn’t arrange for oxygen, but directed me to Dev Chaudhary, in charge of oxygen management at Seti Hospital.

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Meanwhile, Sarathi Hospital was going to discharge my cousin because it had run out of oxygen. It was 1AM and we tried to get an ambulance to transfer her to Seti Hospital. There was none available, so we took her in a rickshaw in the pouring rain. When we got there, we found out Seti had run out of beds. 

We rested her in a wheelchair in the corridor, while we waited for an oxygen cylinder. Finally, at 3AM Dev Chaudhary came through with a cylinder, and we hooked it up to my cousin who was gasping for breath. 

In the morning, we finally got a bed for my cousin. But the doctor said she was in a critical state and her lungs were badly damaged. She needed maximum oxygen flow, and the cylinder would not last more than two hours. There were no more cylinders left, and the hospital asked us to manage it ourselves. 

I reached out to the assistant CDO of Kailali, Hiralal Chaudhary, who pulled some strings with a factory and my cousin went there to get the two empty cylinders filled. That lasted for another few hours, and I was running out of contacts to call on my phone. 

At last, I found one more place with oxygen, but as I was getting on my scooter to go there, my cousin called. “You don’t have to bring oxygen anymore, come to the hospital,” he said.

Read also: Nepal's Covid-19 impact worse than official figures, Kaustubh Dhital

My brain stopped working. I couldn’t speak. At the mortuary, my cousin was inconsolable. I wanted to wrap him in a hug but I couldn’t for the fear of infection.

We waited four hours for the Nepal Army cremation team to arrive. Dressed in white PPEs, they took her away. At the hospital gate, there were more patients arriving in ambulances. Some families did not seem to have trouble getting all the oxygen they needed for their patients because they had contacts.

Nepal’s Constitution guarantees the right to health to all its citizens, but seems some are more equal than others in our republic.

With all the running around, I had to isolate myself to protect family members. I have now got my PCR test, and it is negative. 

In its daily briefing on 22 May, the Ministry of Health in Kathmandu announced that 198 people had died of Covid-19 that day. My cousin was one of them.

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