Diary Of A Doctor

‘The Gorakhpur Hospital Tragedy’

Joydip Ghosal

The Gorakhpur Hospital Tragedy’, a doctor’s memoir of a deadly medical crisis (Published by PAN) is Kafeel Khan’s chronicle of the shocking events that unfolded in August 2017. This first-hand gut-wrenching record of events detailed the turmoil in the wake of the incident. The authorities failed miserably to pin the blame on the perpetrators. They denied that the hospital’s oxygen supply had been ceased. Instead of unearthing the truth behind the gruesome deaths of sixty infants at the state–run Baba Raghav Das Medical College in Gorakhpur they blamed Dr Kafeel Khan for the fatalities. Between 10 and 12 August in 2017 he worked round the clock and tried to restore and fix the problem regarding the supply of life- saving oxygen to the infants and children admitted in the ICU and wards of the Pediatrics Department. That happenings spanning over two to three days would soon lead to life-changing struggle of his own. In no uncertain terms it was a fight for liberty. It was tantamount to war to remain in the profession of healing and treating, a battle to live and work in the place where he was born. This book is a documentation of that arduous journey he was forced to commence after the tragedy that flung his life into topsy-turvy. According to Manoj Singh, the journalist. the reportage on the Oxygen fiasco rendered it synonymous with the identity of Dr Khan.

In this book he documented his early life. Working at the Kasturba Hospital in Manipal laid the foundation for his understanding of the basic tenets of medical profession. He was trained to think his patients above everything else. Their economic status, gender, religion were irrelevant. Their nature of illness mattered most and how they could be transported to the path of healing. On 8 August 2016 he joined the BRD Medical College as a lecturer in the Department of Pediatrics. He was a permanent employee on probation. As a doctor and long term resident of Gorakhpur he was aware of the outbreak of Acute Encephalitis Syndrome or AES. The author here tried to decipher this health problem from a societal angle. This virulent Japanese Encephalitis was prevalent amongst the most underprivileged. Children afflicted with AES belonged to poor, marginalised community. Author threw lights on the 7Ps that were long associated with AES. Those were- population, poverty, poor nutrition, poor and inadequate supply of potable water, poor sanitation, poor vaccine and poor hygiene. He wondered how ‘mosquitoes differentiated between poor and rich kids’.

On that fateful night the question that kept haunting him was how long would it be before the oxygen supply was restored? The impending shortage of oxygen had been communicated by oxygen pipeline operator in writing to the authorities. The supply of piped liquid oxygen ran out on August 10. When supply was finally restored on 2.15 AM on August 13, 18 adults and 63 infants perished. Khan with heroic endeavour tried to procure jumbo oxygen cylinders from private hospitals to mitigate the enormity of the crisis. He approached the local unit of Sashastra Seema Bal to give a truck. He thought that through this way maximum numbers of cylinders could be picked up from available sources. To pay for cylinders he handed over his ATM card. He and his colleagues started providing oxygen by using AMBU bags to the children who were on ventilator support. He had to wage battle on two fronts. First, he had to deal with the worsening condition of the children and second, he had to procure oxygen cylinders. Similar chaotic scene erupted in NICU wards. With the help of central oxygen operator Balwant he arranged for a truck. He paid Rs 20,000 from his own pocket and sent a worker to Khalilabad plant. A plant in Gida flatly declined to provide oxygen. It categorically said that its contract with the college had been terminated. Now IGL Faizabad was empowered to do this. Only after the renewal of contract it would supply oxygen. Through the whole period the administration displayed utter callousness and apathy.

The authorities had since maintained that no deaths occurred due to lack of oxygen. But Dr Kafeel Khan unequivocally established that it was not an accident that was random in nature. On the contrary it was the administration’s apathy and indifference that precipitated the colossal tragedy. Officials tried to suppress the truth and blame it on those who tried to unearth the truth.

From a hero he was metamorphosed into a villain. He was accused of divulging the details to media. Even in the press conference chief minister denied the claim that children died due to oxygen shortage. A hateful vilification did the rounds on social media. TV channels presented their version by wrongly designating him as the head of pediatrics department or the superintendent of the hospital. They castigated him by putting the entire blame upon him. Later he was incarcerated.

Then an order was passed by Justices Siddhartha Varma and Ajit Kumar of the Allahabad High Court where it was unequivocally stated that “We are at pain in observing that … non- supplying of oxygen to the hospitals is a criminal act and not less than a genocide by those who have been entrusted with the task to ensure continuous procurement and supply chain of the liquid medical oxygen. “A probe panel led by Principal Secretary absolved him of any charges of medical negligence, dereliction of duty and corruption but found him guilty of ‘private practice until 8 August 2016’. A division Bench of the Supreme Court comprising Justice Indira Banerjee and

Justice Sanjay Krishan Kaul directed the UP Government to pay the subsistence allowance that was due to him.

In 2020 the UP STF grilled him in Mumbai because of his speech against CAA on the campus of Aligarh Muslim University. He was sent to Mathura Jail. Even National Security Act was invoked against him. The high court,however, quashed the criminal proceedings against him for his speech at AMU.

Kafeel Khan’s efforts also drew attention to dismal scenario in healthcare sector. But few days later he faced suspension. For medical negligence and corruption FIR had been filed against him. Soon he was put behind the bar. For one thing attempts to intimidate him into silence had made him all the more aware of what he owed to society. He had found that working for the most marginalised section of the society was the only way he could be at peace with himself.

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Vol 56, No. 3, Jul 16 - 22, 2023