It took them four days, six buses and several stops along a 2,700-km route to get from Mumbai to Guwahati. Since 65 patients had cancer, and six had just undergone heart surgery — the risks were high and they knew it all along. So when seven of them tested positive for the novel coronavirus on reaching Guwahati, it was a reality they had mentally prepared themselves for.
On Thursday, Assam Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma announced that the positive patients (the youngest among them, a 13-year-old heart patient) had been admitted to the Gauhati Medical College and Hospital.
“It was more or less expected,” said Devasish Sharma, the officer responsible for ferrying them back home. “We passed through several ‘red zones’, we used [public] toilets on the way. The fact that we even took this trip was a calculated risk.”
Sharma has been the Joint Resident Commissioner of Assam Bhawan, Mumbai for more than a decade now. Unlike other state-bhawans in the country, the Assam Bhawan in Navi Mumbai’s Vashi functions as a dedicated shelter for cancer patients from the state — an idea Sharma proposed when he was posted there in 2004. Every year, thousands from Assam visit Mumbai’s Tata Memorial Hospital — known to be one of the best cancer hospitals in the country — for treatment. This year, too, was no different when many reached Mumbai, hopeful of curing themselves.
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However, on March 24 when the lockdown was announced, these patients and their family members were stranded. As COVID-19 cases in Maharashtra increased exponentially, bringing them back home seemed impossible. “Except that, they desperately wanted to come back,” recalled Sharma, “They came and told me ‘While you’re trying to save us from Covid-19, we will die of cancer.’” Many of them had recently gone to Mumbai for treatment but because of the pandemic, were unable to access any medical services.
While the initial plans by the Assam government to bring them by air did not work out (the airlines required Covid-free certificates, and a few tested positive before the journey), buses were the next best alternative for the rest. “It took a week to prepare for the journey,” said Sharma. “The first task was to figure out who was healthy enough to make the journey, and the second — harder — task was to convince those who weren’t to stay back.” The expenses were borne by the Assam government.
In a week, a list of 150 — including patients, family members, and attendants — were drawn up. Dr Neelakshi Choudhury, a young ENT (ears, nose, and throat) specialist of the Gauhati Medical College and Hospital, who was in Mumbai for a fellowship at the time, came on board. And on the afternoon of May 9, the group — and their paraphernalia of medicines, injections, oxygen cylinders, IV-drip bottles and blood pressure instruments — set off. The youngest among them was an 18-month-old baby who had undergone heart surgery, and the eldest, a 76-year-old cancer patient.
Each bus had a team leader, and two drivers, who would alternate at the wheel. “The rule was that bus number one and bus number six had to ensure that the other four buses were constantly in between them,” said Sharma.
But no amount of planning could have prepared them for the things that happened along the way. “This was no ordinary journey,” said Sharma, “And we knew anything could go wrong at any time.”
On the second day, just as they were entering Madhya Pradesh, a young man, who had osteosarcoma (a type of bone cancer), fainted. “It was 45 degrees, and we had stepped out of the bus,” said Sharma, adding that they were able to revive him shortly after. On another night — on a particularly deserted stretch of the highway in Bihar — a man’s tracheostomy tube got displaced. “He was suffering from tongue and oral cavity cancer, and he had to have the tube on constantly,” said Dr Choudhury. There wasn’t a hospital in sight, but luckily her ENT expertise came into use and they successfully managed to reposition it. The man was then put on the drip for a few hours, as the bus moved along.
However, there were frequent stops as patients exhibited a variety of symptoms — from dehydration to gas to stomach ache to headache. Moreover, many would frequently break down too, just from the emotional exhaustion of it all.
Dr Choudhury, who turned 30 last month, said most diseases have immense psychological impact on patients. “And this was cancer — they were already worried and emotions were running high.”
137 cancer patients & 2 attendants have been brought from Mumbai in wake of #COVID19 pandemic. I & @Pijush_hazarika received them at Sarusajai Stadium. After requisite screening they would be sent for quarantine, as per their preferences. #AssamCares @nhm_assam pic.twitter.com/DSWqUhK4mp
— Himanta Biswa Sarma (@himantabiswa) May 12, 2020
So the duo had to ensure that the morale was never down. Sharma brought his guitar along, and singing along became a daily activity. “There was a young child who had finished her chemotherapy. She was a bundle of energy — she would dance and keep everyone entertained,” he said.
On Tuesday afternoon, when they entered the Shrirampur check gate on the Assam-West Bengal border, the patients practically shouted in relief, at the prospect of being so close to home, recalled Dr Choudhury. She is now under home quarantine, after testing negative — as are the other patients and family members who tested negative.
“For us — and them — it was a big achievement,” said Sharma. The 51-year-old is now on his way back to Mumbai, to tend to the other cancer patients sheltered at Assam Bhawan.
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