Lal Ded, the Kashmir Valley’s main maternity hospital, is just across the river from The Indian Express office. And yet, it took nearly eight hours for my family to reach out to me to try and break the shattering news — but they couldn’t.
On Tuesday, August 20, my younger sister Aieman (26), an expectant mother, was admitted at Lal Ded hospital. She was expecting her first baby. The mood at our home in Umarabad, 10 km from the city centre, was ecstatic; the wardrobe in her room was filled with baby clothes, diapers and milk powder. Everyone was waiting for August 26, the day doctors had planned a caesarean.
From August 5, Kashmir was under a clampdown — an unprecedented information blackout meant that I had to travel to hospital every night to check on her. After finishing my work in office, a rush to the Media Facilitation Centre and jostling for space on one of the four desktop computers to send out my stories, I would dash to Lal Ded.
On Thursday night, August 22, as per my routine, I hurried to the hospital from the Media Facilitation Centre. My sister was undergoing some medical investigations. I was told that Aieman is doing well but there are some issues with the heartbeat rate of the child. I was assured it is normal. “Doctors have told me that everything is going well and the heartbeat rate is not a big concern,” Aieman told me before I left, relieved, for office Thursday midnight.
August 23 was Friday — a strict curfew was back, the roads were blocked with spools of concertina wire and metallic barricades and the movement of civilians was restricted. I went out for stories.
At around 10.30 in the night, after filing my stories, I went for the customary visit to my sister. As I entered the room inside the hospital, I sensed all is not well. In the corner of the room, my father was sitting on the cement floor sobbing, and my sister’s father-in-law, a heart patient in his late 60s, was trying to console him. “What has happened?” I asked them. There was complete silence broken by my father’s whisper. “Doctors say there is something wrong with the baby,” he murmured.
By reflex, I reached into my pocket, brought out my cell phone and tried to dial the number before I realised it is dead. I rushed to the office of the Resident Medical Officer (RMO). I asked her what has happened to the baby, she shook her head and said “sorry” — a word enough to draw the life out of my legs.
Aieman was upstairs. I couldn’t summon the courage to see her. I rushed back to my younger brother and he told me the story of the baby’s death and his struggle to reach me during the day.
“Papa, at around 2.30 pm, doctors informed us that there is no movement of the baby. They told us that it means the baby is no more,” Tabish told me in the corridor.
Tabish lovingly calls me Papa instead of Bhaiya. “Papa, I walked to your office twice but it was locked. I didn’t know where and how to find you. When I was tired, I gave up and came back to the hospital, to wait for you to come”.
When the doctors broke the news to Tabish, my mother and father were at home. With no access to information and all communication blocked, Tabish travelled home to inform them. He later travelled to my sister’s home at Humhama, on the outskirts of Srinagar city, to break the news.
The drop in the heartbeat of my sister’s baby couldn’t be communicated, on time, to the senior doctor as the cell phones were dead. My brother told me that the hospital had to send a vehicle to fetch her and when she arrived in the evening, she could only re-confirm that the baby is no more.
The doctors at the hospital regret that the ban on communication prevented them from real time communication to the senior gynaecologist that could have saved the baby. My sister and her husband too have a regret — if the phones worked, maybe a single call could have saved their baby.
On Saturday, August 24, the distraught doctors administered medicine to my sister for induced labour pain. It worked. The baby came out, lifeless.
Our case was not the only one at the hospital. Every patient has his or her own story. One has been trying desperately to reach his family members in Pulwama because he has run out of money; an attendant from Bandipore, who had to send a message to her family about the critical condition of the baby through an ambulance driver. Tabish, who stayed in the hospital all these days and nights, told me many more stories — of despair, agony and helplessness.
I took the lifeless body of the baby boy in my lap, we boarded the vehicle and went to Humhama. As the parents of my brother-in-law and my parents had a last glimpse, we lowered him into the grave with moist eyes.
From the graveyard, I drove to the Media Facilitation Centre to attend the official press briefing, where the J&K government spokesman, Rohit Kansal, said that the “situation is improving”.
Postscript: It has been five days since my sister’s miscarriage. Most of our close relatives, my uncles and aunts, don’t know about it. They might still be waiting for good news.
This article first appeared in the print edition on August 28, 2019 under the title ‘When his heartbeat dropped’. The writer is a senior correspondent with The Indian Express’s Srinagar bureau. Write to the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.