The chaos of the Covid-19 pandemic has brought panic and desperation among those affected. Not just isolation protocols that separate patients from their families but also the distress at not being able to access health facilities quickly, shortage of the still unproved drugs, such as Remdesevir and Tocilizumab, which doctors have been quick to prescribe but people forced to buy from the black market at exorbitant rates, the disease has been challenging the afflicted and their families at every step. At such a time, a clutch of good samaritans, who offer to find a hospital bed or stand for hours to buy medicines, have made a difference in the lives of many. The Indian Express spoke to five persons whose selfless and timely help has given families of Covid-19 patients much relief.
Dr Asif Bhojani
Diabetes and hypertension expert, Bhojani runs a clinic in Goregaon West. A month ago when his colleague, also a doctor, was tested positive for Covid-19 and was hospitalised, Bhojani had the first-hand experience of difficulties the pandemic can spring on patients and their families. “I would not like to name my colleague, but he had treated more than 150 Covid-19 patients before contracting the virus. When he was hospitalised and needed Remdesivir we could not find it anywhere,” Bhojani said.
Remdesivir is an anti-viral drug that is allowed for emergency use of Covid-19 patients in India. Currently, Cipla and Hetero Healthcare have the approval to supply it.
Bhojani remembers reaching out to vendors and searching for the drug till 2 am until they found a philanthropist who arranged one ampoule of Remdesivir. “It hurt me that day to think I could not help a fellow doctor immediately who was saving other Covid-19 patients,” Bhojani said.
In June, Bhojani bought a stock of Remdesivir by approaching various pharma and medical networks. “I reached out to the company suppliers and doctors to procure the drug,” he said. He provides the drug, free of charge, to those in need.
“I only ask them to replace the number of vials they have taken, if they can, and that too, only if they can easily buy it once the treatment is over,” Bhojani said. In cases where the patient’s family cannot replace the quantity, Bhojani does not ask for money. He says he is only trying to rotate the supply he purchased.
So far, Bhojani has helped over 25 Covid-19 patients. “I have purchased this stock so that we can be of help during an emergency. My aim was never to buy and sell,” the physician said. Last week, a 52-year-old patient in Ulhasnagar needed Remdesivir. The family could not find it anywhere. Someone informed them about Bhojani. “The patient’s son said he will pay me for it, but I didn’t want the money,” he said.
Bhojani has also been providing psychological support over video calls to Covid-19 patients who remain under home isolation. The staff at his clinic have also chipped in. Every day they make 3-4 calls to patients to enquire about their health and provide support.
Porwal’s business has been at a standstill since March when the nationwide lockdown was imposed. At home, he started reading social media posts, first about the people’s helplessness to access hospital beds, and eventually about desperate kin looking for Tocilizumab and Remdesivir.
“The situation was so bad I couldn’t sit at home,” he says. He framed a message, with his phone number, and began sending it on WhatsApp groups and Twitter for anyone who needed help during the pandemic.
“I started receiving 25-30 calls each day for the anti-virals. Hospitals had no stock, and patients didn’t know where to go,” he said.
First, he reached out to a friend who runs a private ambulance business to provide free rides to Covid-19 patients to hospitals. Porwal then took the help of another friend who works in the pharmaceutical sector to access phone numbers and addresses of licensed distributors.
He also reached out to distributors to coordinate the availability of drugs and send them to patients.
The supply is erratic, he said. “Sometimes relatives have to travel from other cities to Mumbai and camp outside a distributor’s office to procure fresh stock. I don’t earn enough to fund drugs for free. But I could do the leg work. So, I started standing in queue for families under home quarantine and unable to move out,” he said.
Till now, Porwal has helped 200 patients to buy the drugs, sometimes buying it on their behalf, and, on other occasions, coordinating with a distributor to supply them to the needy patients.
Earlier this week, a family from Navi Mumbai found his number on social media. They needed Tocilizumab for an elderly hospitalised patient. The entire family was under quarantine. Porwal went to Byculla Pharmacy and Stores, an authorised distributor, and stood in the queue for two hours to buy the injection with the patient’s prescription.
Last week, an NRI in London called him. Her parents in Kala Chowki, a South Mumbai area, had tested positive and needed hospitalisation. Porwal and his friend went with an ambulance to ferry them to a hospital.
In April, the 31-year-old had come across a patient at 3 am outside a private hospital, breathless and in need of ventilator. The patent’s family had tried to secure admission at several hospitals. “There are things that a common man has no resources to do, like procure a drug or get a hospital bed. And they need help,” she said.
Fernandes called a doctor, her friend, and got him admitted to a Sion hospital. She decided to help patients and created #SOSMumbai on Twitter. As the hashtag picked up, people needing beds, medicines, reached out and she helped.
“The pandemic has shown how weak our health system is. In early June, if a doctor asked a patient to get Tocilizumab or Remdesivir, the patient didn’t know where to go, who to approach,” she said.
Fernandes started hand-holding these patients, in some cases she even crowdfunded money to buy drugs. She learnt the process, started filling out Drug Control General of India (DCGI) forms for compassionate use of drugs for patients and approached manufacturer Hetero Healthcare with DCGI approval to buy the drug for patients. After the DCGI approved emergency use of these drugs, the process to at least take permission was eliminated.
“Through the process, I realised how this has become a money-minting business,” she said. She found that hospitals are inflating charges of Tocilizumab and Remdesivir, forcing several patients to look for other cheaper options. In two cases, she crowdfunded money to help two Covid-19 patients. One of them, admitted at Kandivali Shatabdi Hospital, was critical and the family had no money to buy Tocilizumab. Fernandes first reached out to her friends and colleagues, arranged for the money, then reached out to Hetero with a prescription to buy the drug for Rs 31,500. “Some hospitals are selling it anything between Rs 44,000 and Rs 60,000. My only hope is that the government intervenes to stop this,” she said. Fernandes does her office work at night and helps patients during the day.
The 53-year-old, who lost his father to the disease on May 25, prefers to remain anonymous. It was during his father’s hospitalisation, that he experienced first-hand the shortage of drugs, the struggle families have to face running around from one distributor to another and the lack of private hospitals’ participation in providing investigational drugs. It was then he decided to help other Covid-19 patients.
His 80-year-old father had no comorbidities, but the fever leading to a positive Covid-19 test soon turned his condition critical. On May 13, he was admitted at Lilavati hospital. Doctors asked the family to arrange Remdesivir. For the seven days he remained under home quarantine, the 53-year-old South Mumbai resident tried all resources to procure the drug.
“I was at home, I could not travel around. So, I started asking friends and people in my network for Remdesivir. It was the hospital’s job to arrange for the drug,” the stockbroker says. While his father required five vials, he managed to get 12 vials after seven days. Only two vials could be administered, before his father succumbed to coronavirus on May 25 morning.
“I decided then other patients should not die for want of this drug,” he said. He bought a stock and started giving out to patients for free. Some, who could afford, paid him the market price of Rs 5,400. Till now he has distributed Remdesivir to more than 30 patients.
“I started reaching out to manufacturers and urged them to create a smooth mechanism for distribution. I was among the first few in India to procure it directly from the company,” he said. A Maharashtra IAS officer and a senior pulmonologist also benefitted through his help.
Dr Anand Utture
“Every individual with some capacity to help should do so,” Utture said. When the lockdown started, he began free of charge phone consultations for everyone.
Utture was educated at Sion hospital. In March, he got a call from colleagues seeking help for personal protective equipment. “It was in the early phase of the pandemic. There was no protective gear for doctors, nurses and staffers, and there were fear and panic among them,” Utture said.
He started reaching out to friends, colleagues, and family to pool in money. Over the last four months, Utture managed to gather enough to donate 750 PPE, 700 N-95 masks and 600 face shields to the Sion hospital, which has treated a lions share of Covid-19 patients from Dharavi.
When more friends pitched in, he donated 500 PPEs to JJ Group of Hospitals as well. In April, he purchased and donated a sterilising machine to the Sion hospital. “The supply has become smooth in the last two months. But in the early stage, providing PPEs was a major concern,” he said.
His friend, a garment manufacturer, agreed to stitch 1,500 masks which they distributed among healthcare workers. Utture also distributed biscuits among policemen posted in containment zones and along roads on inspection duty.
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