Gurgaon: Room No. 24 is a quiet haven in Gurgaon General Hospital, located in the teeming old quarters of the suburb south of south Delhi. It’s in a corridor free of the throngs of patients who crowd the rest of the noisy outpatient department, sprawled across two halls. At any given time, there aren’t more than a handful of people waiting outside the room: mainly parents accompanying schoolchildren, young company employees and elderly couples.
Most of them look lost, perhaps because it’s the first time they are visiting the government-run hospital. They are mainly residents of New Gurgaon, home to the swanky apartment complexes, shopping malls, call centres and company headquarters that qualify Gurgaon to preen as Millennium City.
Masked threat?People throng the screening centre at Dr Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital in New Delhi to get themselves tested for the H1N1 virus. Manvender Vashist/PTI
Given a choice, they would perhaps have preferred to go to one of the many private hospitals in Gurgaon, which styles itself as a healthcare hub in the making. But Gurgaon General Hospital is the only facility in the suburb designated to collect samples from and treat suspected swine flu patients. Room No. 24 is where they submit to a throat swab (the back of the throat is scraped with a sterile cotton swab), which is then sent to the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) in Delhi for testing.
I had my throat swab done on Friday, 7 August, the day my 18-year-old son tested positive for H1N1. The experience has been a bit of an eye-opener. I am yet to receive the result of my test. I visited the hospital twice on Monday to collect my report, only to be told that it hadn’t arrived yet, although I would presumably be in the high-risk category because of contact with a person who had tested positive. No one had answered the phone at Gurgaon General Hospital, where patients without masks were on Monday being told to buy their own before entering Room No. 24.
NICD is overwhelmed by the number of tests it has had to perform since the swine flu scare spread, said a friendly hospital staffer. (Another said it had been delayed because of the intervening weekend.) Meanwhile, the hospital’s stock of the antiviral drug oseltamivir is already running short, he said. On Monday, I was doled out six Fluvir capsules, from a February 2006 batch manufactured by Hetero Drugs Ltd in Himachal Pradesh. That’s two days’ dosage for three members of my family, excluding my son.
The doctor on duty in Room No. 24 on Monday said we needed to take one capsule a day for five days; another had told us previously that we needed one dose a day for 10 days. A patient who tests positive for H1N1 requires two capsules a day for five days.
My son studies in Pune, and when he had arrived in Delhi last week, he had no obvious swine flu symptoms—no fever, headache or runny nose that we read and hear are classic signs of H1N1—although he had a sore throat and a single bout of vomiting a couple of days prior.
The doctor we usually go to in Gurgaon said after a cursory examination that he was fine and didn’t need to be tested for swine flu. But the scare was building after the first fatality in Pune and we took him to Gurgaon General Hospital anyway. The person manning Room No. 24 on the day said he didn’t exhibit any symptoms and asked why we wanted him to get tested. We explained that he studied in Pune and had a sore throat and wanted to confirm/rule out swine flu. The test was performed eventually after we had filled out the mandatory form.
After he tested positive, the staff at Gurgaon General asked us to head to either Deen Dayal Upadhyay Hospital or Dr Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital in Delhi immediately to put him in an isolation ward. We headed to the latter and after finding our way to new block where the ward is located, we were told by a doctor on duty (he didn’t have a mask on) that there was an alternative: under a new medical protocol, we could opt for home quarantine. I called Gurgaon General, where the staff dealing with swine flu cases hadn’t heard about the change and asked us to bring along a copy of the new regulations.
It has been my first direct experience of the public healthcare system in 24 years. The last time was in 1985, when I had to visit Safdarjung Hospital with a broken arm after a fall.
This account is not meant to castigate the government health system or the people who run it, although there have been calls to co-opt private hospitals into the fight against H1N1. The people at both Gurgaon General and Dr Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital were friendly enough and obviously have to cope with constraints not of their own making.
What I found scary about the latest experience was the absence of communication in the public health network, four months after the pandemic broke out, and the seeming indifference of medical professionals, including the private doctor who said there was no need for my son to be tested. And apparently you can have swine flu without running a fever, contrary to what we are told.
I was advised to stay in isolation for five days, but I have had no option but to visit the hospital, with my face covered in a mask, to enquire about my throat-swab test result. As I wrote this piece, I made at least three calls to the mobile number I was given to find out whether the report was ready, but the phone was either switched off or outside the coverage area.
Postscript: I drove to the hospital at 3pm on Tuesday to find out about my report. It hadn’t arrived. An employee had gone to Delhi to find about belated test reports, a technician said.