In Patna, three hospital staff accused of sexually assaulting a critical COVID-19 patient

Paras Hospitals is a group of multi-speciality hospitals with branches in several cities across the country, including this one in Gurugram. Three staff members of the Paras Hospital branch in Patna, Bihar have been accused of sexually assaulting a COVID-19 patient, who was admitted in the ICU ward, on 17 May. She died two days later. Vipin Kumar / Hindustan Times

On 19 May, a 22-year-old resident of Patna filed a police complaint accusing three staff members of the city’s Paras HMRI Hospital of sexually assaulting her 45-year-old mother, a COVID-19 patient who was admitted in the intensive care unit. The mother was pronounced dead that day. She had been admitted into the hospital’s ICU just four days earlier, and according to the complaint, she told her daughter about the assault on 17 May, when she visited her mother at the hospital and found her hands tied to the bed. The 22-year-old stated in her complaint that the hospital authorities denied the allegations when she confronted them. The mother was cremated on 19 May without a post-mortem examination because she was a COVID-19 patient.

The hospital administration has denied the allegations, but did not respond to detailed queries about the case. The police have registered a first-information report based on the complaint, but despite the grave allegations of sexual assault, the FIR records an offence of sexual harassment. “We are interrogating hospital employees,” Ramashankar Singh, the station-house officer of Patna’s Shastri Nagar police station, told me on 27 May. “Case is under investigation so I can't disclose anything about suspects.”

In the complaint, the 22-year-old stated that her mother had tested positive and was under home quarantine when her oxygen began to drop. At around 7 am on 15 May, the 45-year-old was admitted at Paras Hospital after her oxygen levels dropped to 89, the complaint noted. It said that the hospital admitted her into the ICU immediately. The daughter stated in the complaint, “On 15/5/21 and 16/5/21, during the meeting hour from 4–5 pm, I had personally gone to meet my mother and her health was completely fine then. Her oxygen level was between 94–96.” It is unclear why a patient with relatively stable oxygen readings had been admitted in the ICU at all.

“At 10 in the morning on the next day on 17/5/21,” the daughter’s complaint continued, “I received a call from Paras hospital saying, ‘Your signature is needed for some papers, your mother’s condition is not good.’” She said that she reached the hospital by around 11 am. “When I went to the ICU to meet my mother, her hands and chest were tied to the bed,” the complaint stated. The 22-year-old said that when she asked what had happened, her mother said, “Teen logo ne mere sath galat chedkhani kiya hai”—Three people have molested me. In the complaint, the word “chedkhani”—meaning molestation—has been scribbled on top of the word “galat,” evidently added after the rest of the line.

The mother then told her daughter that all three were staff members of the hospital, and even pointed to one man in the hospital and identified him as one of the three who had assaulted her, according to the complaint. The daughter added that her mother also accused an uncle of one of the nurses on duty the previous evening of being involved in the crime. Since the hospital and the police have not responded to questions, it is still unclear who these men were and whether they have been interrogated in relation to the incident.

On 17 May, the daughter published a video on Facebook in which she can be seen trying to record her mother’s statement. She asks her mother questions about the incident, but the 45-year-old appears unable to speak. In the video, the mother is seen using the support of an invasive mechanical ventilation machine to breathe—a ventilator that has an instrument installed through the patient’s mouth into the trachea, or windpipe. In a statement to media personnel after her mother’s death, on 19 May, the daughter claimed that the hospital authorities had decided to intubate her mother after she accused the staff members of sexual assault. However, the daughter did not respond to requests to clarify whether she was referring to the invasive ventilation seen in the video. Yet again, in the absence of any response from the hospital, it is unclear when and why the hospital authorities had deemed invasive ventilation necessary.

Dr KR Antony, a paediatrician and an independent monitor with the National Health Mission, explained the usual decision-making process for patients who need ventilation. “Invasive ventilation is done in basically two conditions,” Antony said. “First, when non-invasive oxygenation through a helmet-like face mask does not improve oxygen-saturation level and breathing is increased, and second, definitely when patient is unconscious then invasive ventilation is advised.”

The complaint filed by a 22-year-old woman accusing three staff members of Patna's Paras Hospital of sexually assaulting her 45-year-old mother, who was COVID-19 positive and admitted in the ICU, on 17 May.

From 17 May onwards, the daughter’s complaint noted, her mother’s condition began to deteriorate. At around midnight that same day, the daughter said she received a call from Paras hospital asking her to come sign some papers for conducting a test to determine if there had been a physical assault. Once again, the words “physical assault test” were clearly written after the original sentence, which stated that the 22-year-old had been called to sign some papers, but did not include the details. The 22-year-old wrote that she did not sign any papers regarding such a test, but that it was conducted without her consent. She told us that she did not know what precisely this test was, or what its results were because the documents regarding them were not provided to her.

On 18 May, the daughter said in her complaint, the doctors at Paras hospital informed her that her mother had gone into a coma. “Since then, the Paras hospital authorities instilled a fear in my mind that anything can happen to her,” the daughter stated in the complaint. At 5.45 am on 19 May morning, she received a call from the hospital that her mother had been pronounced dead. “Mera dawa hai ki Paras hospital, Patna ke staff ke dwara meri maa ke sath galat aur amanviya vyavhar ke karan hi meri maa ki mrityu huyi hai”—I am of the belief that my mother died because of the wrong and inhumane behaviour of the staff at Paras Hospital, Patna—the 22-year-old’s complaint stated.

Despite a complaint that clearly accused the hospital staff of the offence of sexual assault, under section 354 of the Indian Penal Code, the police officials from Patna’s Shastri Nagar station registered an FIR under sections pertaining to sexual harassment, insulting the modesty of a woman, endangering public safety, and criminal intimidation. The police have also included offences pertaining to public servants, though given that Paras HMRI, Patna is a private hospital, it is unclear whom these offences concern. Ramashankar, the station-house officer, and Smita Sinha, the investigating officer in the case who recorded the daughter’s statement, did not respond to queries about the case.

Ramashankar said that the police had formed a committee that included four independent doctors—he did not reveal their names—to assist the police investigation. The SHO added that Chandrashekhar Singh, the district magistrate of Patna, had constituted another four-member team, which included Vibha Kumari—the Patna civil surgeon—and himself. Kumari acknowledged to us that she is part of the committee formed by the magistrate, but said she had not received any official communication regarding it. Kumari added that she had not visited Paras Hospital after learning of the incident, and also noted that a team of four independent doctors had been formed and was probing the incident. She, too, declined to identify the doctors in the team. Chandrashekhar, the district magistrate, did not respond to multiple calls and messages.

On 19 May, after learning of her mother’s death, the 22-year-old gave an impassioned statement to media personnel, accusing the hospital administration of murder and calling for the hospital to be shut down. Her father had died around ten years ago, and her mother’s death left the 22-year-old and her ten-year-old brother with their grandparents in Patna. In the ensuing days, the 22-year-old and her family withdrew from the media, declining to discuss the case any further and stating that the daughter had already filed her complaint to the police. “She is in trauma and needs rest,” a man who identified himself as a family member told us when we called the 22-year-old’s phone. He refused to tell us his name, but added, “Whatever we have submitted in our application is hundred percent true.”

Paras Hospitals is a group of multi-speciality hospitals with branches in Gurugram, Darbhanga, Patna, Ranchi, Udaipur and Panchkula. PD Gupta, a spokesperson for Paras Hospitals, declined to respond to detailed questions about the incident, saying that the “case is under investigation” and that he “cannot get into pointed questions.” However, Gupta responded with a statement by the hospital. “Recently certain wild allegations have been made against Paras HMRI hospital, Patna,” the statement noted. “Paras HMRI hospital denies every such allegation in the press & social media. The FIR registered in the case should be quashed … Paras HMRI hospital stands by the police and administration for an honest & fair probe.”

On 21 May, the popular online news portal Live Cities published an interview with Dr Ajay Kumar, the director of Paras Hospital’s institute of urology, nephrology and transplant, about the allegations raised by the 22-year-old. Kumar is also a former president of the Indian Medical Association. He began his interview by stating that he is not speaking out of a bias towards Paras Hospital, adding that he has represented India’s medical community at a national and international level, and that he had joined Paras three years ago to fulfill a desire to lead a transplant team. Before coming to the incident in question, Kumar also noted that he had “never seen any wrongdoing” at Paras Hospital and that “I would be the first to leave if I had seen anything.”

He then discussed the accusations of sexual assault. Kumar said that all the ICU wards of Paras Hospital are located on the fourth floor, where his consultation centre and kidney transplant room is situated. “The incident in question is said to have happened in a ward called B2, which is a 25-bed COVID ward,” Kumar said. “In that 25-bed ward, there were 22 beds occupied with COVID patients. There were 12 staff members on duty—seven women nurses, two male general duty officers, and three housekeeping staff, two of whom were women and one man. All of them have to wear a kit and go into the ICU. There’s a guard outside the ward and there are CCTV cameras everywhere.”

Kumar then detailed why he believed the accusations were false. “In these circumstances, you only tell me, did some Mr India come”—referring to a film starring Anil Kapoor, in which he plays an invisible man—“and choose this specific woman?” Kumar asked. “There were other women as well. In that context, was this woman beautiful, was she ugly, this is also something we don’t know. But they chose this specific woman and misbehaved with her? There must be some reason for misbehaving, but nobody knows anything about that either.”

The senior Paras Hospitals doctor claimed that the 45-year-old may have told her daughter a false account under a “hallucination.” He added that he doubted the accusations because they were only told by the 22-year-old, who was related to the patient, and claimed that patients at the hospital have previously used such “gimmicks” to negotiate fees with private hospitals. When asked about her hands being tied, Kumar responded, “I do not know if her hands were tied or not, but during a state of hallucination, a patient might thrash her hands around, scratch people, so it becomes necessary to tie their hands so they don’t pull off their oxygen mask.” With a gleeful laugh, he added, “This has been further proved now—this is a great thing because it is proved that she was hallucinating.”

The case had invited the attention of civil-society organisations and political parties, and expectedly, Kumar’s comments outraged activists who were following the case. “Dr. Kumar’s comments are utterly shameful and anti-women,” Nivedita Jha, the working president of the Bihar Mahila Samaj, told us. “Does he mean to say, only beautiful women are raped? His comments are deeply patriarchal and must be taken back.” Jha questioned the police’s failure to act sooner. “Even after such serious allegations, why did not the police act immediately? Neither did the police take a statement from the victim nor was the post-mortem done. It could have helped establish the case better.”

Premchand Singh, the national secretary of the Jan Adhikar Party, told us that the hospital authorities had told him that the 45-year-old woman’s hands had been tied because she had removed her urinary catheter. “For a minute, let us suppose what the hospital is claiming is true, and that the patient was squirming in pain and she herself removed the urinary catheter and that is the reason why her hands had to be tied,” Singh said. “The lady claimed that a few men arrived in the ICU. Even if we are to believe that a super speciality hospital didn’t have a female doctor or nurse and the only male doctor had to put the urinary catheter—shouldn’t the hospital tell us who these few men were?”

Singh told us that he was among the first to speak to the 22-year-old after she accused the staff of sexual assault, and that she had told him that the hospital authorities were putting a lot of pressure on her. “Instead of clearing the air, the hospital management has resorted to pressurising the daughter and the family,” Singh said.

Rani Chaubey, another leader from the Jan Adhikar Party, told us that she had visited the hospital on 17 May after the news of the incident first broke, and met the daughter. “She told me that she wants her mother to recover from COVID-19 and get her discharged from the hospital, then only she would reveal everything,” Chaubey told us. “I think she was scared and was under immense pressure that if she revealed everything then she would land in trouble.”

The politicians were not the only ones to speak of the pressure on the daughter and her family. According to a family friend of the mother, the 22-year-old “is being advised by her family not to pursue the case any further, what has happened has happened.” The family friend added that another close friend of the mother’s family “is associated with the ruling party Janata Dal (United), which might also be one of the reasons as the issue has been politicised now.”

On 18 May, the National Commission of Women took cognisance of the matter. That day, its official Twitter handle posted, “Chairperson Rekha Sharma has written to Chief Secretary, Bihar to give appropriate directions to the District Police officials & the hospital. NCW has also written to DGP Bihar for immediate intervention.” Pertinently, the former chairperson and members of the Bihar State Women Commission completed their term in October last year, and no new members have been appointed since.

“NCW had written to the chief secretary to take necessary action and police has now already registered case,” an NCW official told us, requesting not to be identified by name. “At the moment we do not have updates on the investigation.” The official added that the family had not approached the NCW.

“She is under immense pressure,” Bhagya Bharti, the vice president of the All India Student Federation’s state unit, told us. “A young girl in her twenties, who had lost her father a few years back and has lost her mother now. She also has the responsibility of a younger brother. One can understand the kind of mental state she would be in.”