Since the outbreak of protests in Kashmir that left 47 civilians dead and more than 3,000 injured, the peripheral hospitals of Valley’s Health Services department played a pivotal role in saving lives of the injured. Around 2,500 injured who had received pellet, bullet and tear smoke shell injuries were initially treated at the district, sub-district hospitals across the Valley. Doctors, paramedics and ambulance drivers risked their lives to save those injured round the clock.
“Almost all the injured and dead civilians where initially treated in the hospitals run by Health Services department and critically injured were ferried for specialized treatment from North, South and Central parts of Kashmir to city hospitals, where lives of many injured got saved,” said Director, Health Services Dr Saleem ur Rehman who is currently the most busiest officer of the Jammu and Kashmir government.
“Till date, about 2,500 injured were treated in the hospitals run by Directorate and more than 322 were referred to higher centres after initial treatment,” he says. His mobile and landline phones kept constantly ringing for the first ten days after the outbreak of protests in the Valley, he adds. “For us, it was a crisis-like situation, and everyone especially those whose kith and kin were ill or got injured in the protests were looking towards us for solace and help.”
On routine days, Dr Saleem reaches his office located in an old Dogra era building inside the old secretariat at 10 am, but nowadays, he is at his office as early as 7 am. “This is the time, when I can’t stay at home, though my family members wish so,” he says and adds, “My home is barely eight kilometers away from the office but, nowadays, I prefer to travel using ambulance instead of official vehicle. To some extent, it is safe to travel in an ambulance.”
During the recent protests, more than 97 ambulances and vehicles of the J&K health department were damaged and the staff was attacked and beaten up.
Before coming to office, Dr Saleem visits Control Room – a place that was established at Barzulla Health Centre few months ago. “Control Room is the place where staff receives every details about our health centre and problems faced by patients, injured or the staff. And every data is available here,” he says adding that at mid night people called officers at Control Room for redressal of grievances. “Thankfully, we had very few grievances during past 18 days. Everyone, be it an administrators, doctors, paramedics or people associated with our transport department worked with dedication.”
Once in office, Dr Saleem starts compiling data received from various rural health centres. “During floods, when our office got deluged, I along with my team worked from the uptown city. For these situations, we have a set Standard Operating Procedure and we followed the same this time as well,” he says. During crisis hours he regularly keeps in touch with Commissioner Secretary Health. “Whenever there was any issue, my Commissioner Secretary used all his influence to get it solved.”
About tackling issues in exigency, Dr Saleem says that there was shortage of oxygen at some centres as plants were closed. “I had to personally visit the plant owner to get the supplies. He (plant owner) could have easily avoided my juniors.” He says while he transferred the latest data to higher officials in the civil secretariat he is also in touch with chief medical officers (CMOs), and “if there is shortage of oxygen or drugs, that is the priority.”
With curfew in place and highway closed at some point, Dr Saleem says, the department also faced shortage of some supplies in rural hospital, especially in south Kashmir where the situation was very bad. “I got the supplies lifted from Jammu and I can’t forget drivers who risked their lives to get us the supplies.” Saying that connectivity plays major role in the functioning of the hospitals especially in rural and far flung areas, he adds, “Last Saturday, we had to run ambulances between our hospitals to get news and updates about hospitals in north Kashmir, as all the communication lines were down.”
When an ambulance driver, Jan Mohammad posted at Qazigund Health Centre was severely beaten by forces along with attendants during night, Dr Saleem took a risk and drove towards Qazigund despite the national highway being closed. “My colleagues advised me it is risky to travel to south Kashmir, but I took it as a challenge. When my ambulance drivers don’t fear for their lives, why should I? Being the head of department, I have to lead from the front.”
On way to Qazigund, Dr Saleem says security men and groups of protestors stopped him at dozen of places on the national highway that was blocked with stones, barricades, wooden logs and steel poles. “At some places, I couldn’t dare to reveal my actual identity, I just told them I am a doctor on way to duty,” he says and adds that when the ambulance driver saw him he couldn’t control his emotions. “I told the driver I just came for him. Tears rolled down from his eyes and he told me even if he will lose his life now, he will keep on ferrying patients from this remote centre.”
On way to Srinagar, around midnight Dr Saleem along with the Anantnag CMO and also interacted with patients at the district hospital. “As south Kashmir witnessed large scale violence, most of the patients and injured were referred to this hospital. And, when I saw doctors working round the clock, I was filled with pride.”
Dr Saleem says that doctors were performing such complicated surgeries in Anatnag hospital that are difficult even under normal circumstances. “Complicated surgeries were performed during these days and many human lives got saved,’’ he said, adding that on way to home he also visited the sub-district hospital at Bijbhera.
Dr Saleem said, that due to curfew in Kashmir, almost majority of patients were treated at the closest health centers. “My doctors so far have performed more than 5,175 surgeries in two weeks, both major and minor. These are the times, when our services are required most.” Even the division bench comprising Chief Justice N P Vasanthakumar and Justice Muzaffar Hussain Attar acknowledged the work of director health and praised him for his dedication during the current crisis.
“My son had come from Mumbai on Eid to spend holidays with family. It really pains me that I couldn’t spare an hour for him in past 17 days,” he says and adds that, “All my doctors and paramedics are working uncer similar circumstances and many didn’t got a chance to visit their families.”