Why Are So Many Babies Dying at This Hospital in India?

Stories from Roads & Kingdoms
April 11 2014 7:05 AM

Why Are So Many Babies Dying at This Hospital in India?

The hospital conditions are appalling, but a bigger reason may be the crumbling infrastructure that prevents the poor from getting the care they need.       

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By “other places,” Ghosh is referring to what doctors call peripheral hospitals. These are generally government-run university medical centers or smaller, primary health centers that serve specific villages or rural communities. “People sometimes bring their sick babies here from seven or eight hours away,” Ghosh says. “We do everything we can for them, but eventually the patient load becomes too high for us to cope.”

Ghosh’s explanation is common among the private doctors I interviewed in West Bengal. While the media was tarring B.C. Roy as the hospital of death, relatively few parents actually complained of negligence on the part of the doctors. Most of them, in fact, arrived desperate for their children to be seen by anyone at all.

Infrastructure in West Bengal, like much of India, is extremely weak, and it grows weaker as it spreads out from major urban centers, like Kolkata, into smaller, more remote regions of the state. In these unseen places, parents may seek immediate treatment for their sick or malnourished infant and find nothing but endless lines of other patients or doctors who lack the proper equipment to assist them with their son’s or daughter’s needs. Only then, after all avenues have been exhausted and a state of emergency has been reached, do parents begin the long and expensive journey to Kolkata.

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I visited B.C. Roy in February and spoke to parents of ailing babies. One father, Sujiauddin Saji, a 23-year-old house painter, first took his 4-month-old son Suraj to the local hospital in a district 30 miles north of Kolkata to treat illnesses related to malnourishment. The boy developed severe hypothermia while at the local hospital, and the family traveled to Kolkata looking for help. Members of the Saji family, including Sujiauddin, camped out on the B.C. Roy lawn for five days, waiting for the boy to be nursed back to health.

In Saji’s village, no one had heard of the hospital’s spate of infant deaths.

“I came here because this is a very famous children’s hospital,” Saji explained through a translator. “The last hospital where we were put him in this condition.”

According to Dr. Banarjee, the hospital conditions in Saji’s district, where his son caught hypothermia, are not even the worst in the state. Banarjee toured the state’s peripheral hospitals in 2011, as a response to the original media firestorm. The worst conditions he found were at Burdwan University Medical Center, a place he called “worse than a roadside toilet.” He and other government officials have tried to rescue Burdwan by recommending new equipment and more hospital beds.

After seeing Burdwan for myself, however, I cannot imagine that resources alone will make much of a difference. The first thing I noticed at the hospital, besides the overpowering stench of urine in the hallways, was the number of people waiting to be seen. They numbered in the hundreds, crammed into every hallway, burrowing themselves into dirty staircases, and clustering along garbage-strewn lawns. Families slept on bedding made from connected, uncut sheets of Chips Ahoy and Airhead candy wrappers, which are printed for import in a nearby factory. A local entrepreneur was selling excess or throwaway stashes of the candy wrappers outside of the hospital for 40 rupees, or 60 cents apiece.

The foil sheets were in treatment wards as well. There, 140 metal beds were aligned side by side with no curtains between patients. In places where there were no bed sheets, women nursed their babies while lying on Nutter Butter and Oreo cookie wrappers. Beneath the wrappers, the mattresses were stained with feces and blood.

Dr. B. Biswas, 34, an assistant professor at the medical college who works in the hospital’s newborn intensive care unit, explained that sometimes he has no choice but to advise parents to make the trip to Kolkata and visit B.C. Roy. “Our patient loads are impossibly high,” he explained. “We don’t have the space or the manpower to treat everyone here who needs our help.”

As Biswas spoke, several emaciated newborns were being sustained on machines brought in on the advice of Banarjee’s High Level Task Force. The babies’ frail bodies quivered under a deep purple, ultraviolet light. Bishwas said that with a ratio of 15 babies for every one doctor, the help provided by West Bengal’s government isn’t enough.

“It’s better than nothing of course, but we have doctors working 24-hour shifts,” Biswas said. “A few machines can’t help us double or triple our manpower.” Biswas explained that the bulk of his patient load comes from primary health centers that are supposed to function as a first response in villages here but are often unequipped to meet that challenge.

One such place is Block Primary Health Center in Barsul, a 15-minute drive from Burdwan, where there are only two doctors serving a population of roughly 150,000 people. Electricity at the Block Primary Health Center goes out every few hours. That would theoretically be a problem for performing complex surgeries, but the center’s lone operating room has been boarded up for several months, sitting empty and abandoned, collecting dust. But electricity issues are a problem for delivering babies, and according to the doctor on duty that day, 350 babies are born per year at Block.

The hallways and toilets in Block are filthy, and most of the metal beds in the maternity room are slanted or broken. Many of the babies born here arrive malnourished or premature, making them immediately susceptible to disease. When such babies are born, if one of the two rented ambulances in the area is available to take them, they are then dispatched to Burdwan in the hope that they can be saved. If Burdwan can’t help, the babies are eventually sent to Kolkata for a last-ditch effort to save a life. Too often, those efforts fail.

I felt uneasy as my driver took me across West Bengal’s sprawling Grand Trunk Road back to Kolkata. Any sense of charm I might have gleaned from the roadside dhabas eateries or rice farms was overshadowed by sense of disgust. I thought of my own son’s birth, and then I imagined this brutal journey played out over and over again by agonized parents fruitlessly hoping that their sick child might somehow survive.

Michael Edison Hayden is a writer based in Mumbai. Follow him on Twitter. Research for this series was funded by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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