On 19 April, Narayanaswamy, the head of Athreya Hospital in Anekal, a town in Bengaluru urban district, sounded an alarm with government and health officials, oxygen suppliers, and the media: his hospital was running out of oxygen. His patients, several of whom were severely ill with COVID-19, would not survive without it. “I have eight patients who are in critical condition and their family members are falling on my feet asking me to save them at any cost. But I am helpless. I can’t do anything,” Narayanaswamy, who is also the president of the Indian Medical Association in Anekal, told reporters with the Bangalore Mirror when they met him that night.
A 69-year-old COVID-19 patient overheard the doctor while he was making appeals for oxygen over the phone. Narayanaswamy recalled that he went to replenish the man’s oxygen, which was running out, he found him hugging the empty cylinder, refusing to let go. “He thought I was stealing his oxygen supply for another patient,” Narayanaswamy told me. “I had to convince him, he was not listening, even as his oxygen was dropping from 70 to 65. That’s when I broke down.”
At around noon on 20 April, about 24 hours after Narayanaswamy made his frantic calls, district health and government officials visited Athreya Hospital. They assured Narayanaswamy that they would facilitate the provision of oxygen for the hospitals in Anekal facing shortages. But, Narayanaswamy said, they were also worried about public perception. He recalled one official saying, “We are in the public, whatever is happening, we should not worry the families. We should avoid panic…even if don’t have something in our pockets, we should say our pockets are full.”
Soon after the meeting with health officials, Narayanaswamy sent a member of his administrative staff to the government-recommended supplier to get cylinders refilled. The truck going to the supplier had close to 72 empty cylinders from different hospitals in the area, including Athreya Hospital. Narayanaswamy found the suppliers resistant to refilling the cylinders and government officials, unresponsive. “Till midnight, none of them were picking up calls, I started calling again, putting messages everywhere possible, I started the same hungama”—fuss.— “When the situation was going to burst, they answered,” Narayanaswamy told me. The oxygen eventually arrived at Athreya Hospital a few hours past midnight, but for the 69-year-old patient, it was too late. He had died earlier that day. “I am honestly telling you, we didn’t have uninterrupted oxygen supply,” Narayanaswamy said, “I put my hand on my heart and tell you, there were interruptions. If it was continuously flowing, maybe he could have made it. Maybe, who knows, I am not God.”