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"Random musings"

Rain, rain... go to spain

Another year and another monsoon. Mumbai suddenly seems like its inching back to 26th July 2005. This time around I am home and dry. Not very fair, but I get to reminisce about last year while sipping my chai and munching on ‘kande bhaji’ while people out there wade through knee deep muck.

This time last year was my last month of internship at the Sir J.J. Group of Hospitals, Byculla. I was looking forward to the end of 48-hour duties, looking forward to sleeping six hours a night and most importantly looking forward to getting out of what was then a thoroughly depressing place (nostalgia now has given different shades to JJ).
My last internship posting was Gynaecology and Obstetrics at Cama and Albless Women’s and Children’s Hospital, Dhobi Talao(next to Xavier’s for those who don’t know). Never enjoyed OB/GY…

I was off call on the 26th and had gone to JJ hospital, helped a friend out with her ward work and finally managed to get home early next morning after wading through waist deep water and hitching a ride in a rickety police van.

We realised the true proportions of the tragedy slowly as news kept trickling in. Friends were spending nights in their offices, people had died in their cars, and people had died in the slums…

On the 27th a friend and I approached the Superintendent of the St. George’s hospital (part of the JJ group, situated behind CST station) with a plan. We told him that if he could give us one ambulance and some supplies we could gather a bunch our colleagues and try and get some medical aid to people stranded in the rains. We were almost laughed out of his office; he had a couple of flunkies with him who wondered aloud as to who these knights were rushing to the aid of.

Chastened, we went back to work. But in two days, after public outrage and non-stop media reports, the superintendent and his masters in the Government of Maharashtra were singing to a different tune altogether. They set up two camps at Churchgate and CST stations providing medical aid. But this of course in true government style was too little, too late, and far away from where help was actually required.

On the 31st of July I was put in charge of a team of five of my co-interns and was asked to get to Dahisar, where we were to help the BMC conduct health camps in affected areas. It was still raining but we managed to reach the BMC ward office. Our superiors at JJ had told us that we only had to report for duty, the BMC had supplies and an action plan ready.

What follows is what happened next

Ward Office:
At the ward office the Medical Officer Health (MOH) was playing solitaire on his new computer, sipping on chai. He waves us to sit, not really taking his eyes off the game. Then someone in the office told us to arbitrarily divide the health posts in the ward amongst us. A peon walks into the office asking the MOH to come in for a conference to the Ward officer’s cabin. The MOH looks at us and drags us along to the meeting, confessing that its been a while since he has looked at a patient and insists that we handle any questions that came up about epidemics or leptospirosis.
More chai was sipped, small talk happened; the rains were mentioned in passing. I asked if medical supplies had arrived yet from the BMC health headquarters (F/South – Parel). The officer told me that since there was water logging everywhere most of the truck drivers couldn’t get to work and the ones that could, couldn’t drive the trucks with supplies all the way to Dahisar. It occurred to me to tell him that they should just load it onto trains and get them here, since I had bloody well managed to drag my sorry ass all the way from Colaba, but better sense prevailed. Anyway, the officer went on, we shouldn’t have a problem at the health posts since they were all well stocked.

Health post:
At the health post we found the PHN (public health nurse) sipping on some more chai. Inquiries were made about the FTMO (‘full time’ medical officer) and we were told that he had left for his private clinic (we suspect that he never came in that morning). We asked the PHN where the health post staff had gone, “they… er… are in the field” she said “surveying the situation…” All that the health post had in terms of supplies were paracetamol tablets (crocin), iron tablets and children’s vaccines. Frustrated we called JJ, we were instructed that we should just hang around there till noon and come back. We then called the ward office and asked them where the promised supplies were, and we were told that we should learn to make the best of what we have.
We walked around the area a bit and came back to the health post. Surprisingly, the smiling Medical Officer who insisted that he had only gone home for lunch, when it was obvious that he had been frantically called back by the PHN, greeted us. He then went on to explain that since we didn’t have supplies or anything there was little we could do but wait.

Jain temple:
Bang next to the health post (almost sharing a wall) is a Jain temple. They seemed to have some sort of committee meeting on with middle-aged men sitting around discussing something. It struck us that we could probably convince the temple committee to buy us medicines. So my colleague (Gujarati speaking devout Jain) and me (Malayalam/ Marathi speaking atheist/agnostic) went up to them. They were very receptive to our idea. We made up a list of drugs we needed and they made a list of wholesalers they knew whose warehouses hadn’t been flooded, simple.

By the next morning we managed to collect almost every drug we needed. The health post staff (including the FTMO and PHN) were shocked when they saw the drugs appear. The first camp we held had only the two of us with volunteers from the temple, the BMC staff grudgingly joined us the day after.
In the next 15 days we (we divided supplies amongst our original team of six) managed to cover every flood affected area in the ward with daylong health camps. We believe that these camps ensured that there were no post monsoon deaths in the ward area.

On the 7th day supplies finally arrived from the BMC, antibiotic tablets labelled in Hebrew and English, wonder where all the aid that seemed to be pouring into Mumbai went.

It was gratifying to find help last year when we were clutching at straws. But I sincerely hope that the BMC is better prepared this time around. It does look like today will be nowhere as bad as 26th July 2005, but it wouldn't hurt to be prepared.

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