Srinagar, Kashmir – In less than a week, 23-year-old Umer Farooq says, his life turned into a living hell.
On April 20, his 53-year-old mother, Haseena Bhat, tested positive for COVID along with his father, Farooq Ahmad Bhat, 63, and brother Wasee Ullah Bhat, 28. The family all live together in Srinagar in Indian-administered Kashmir.
Six days later, Umer’s previously healthy mother died in his arms and his father – who still does not know that his wife is dead – remains in hospital in a critical condition.
“When we got the positive results on April 20, my father broke down; he started crying like a baby. The hysteria around us and the terrible condition of COVID patients in Kashmir has scared every single one of us. He worried for my mother the most,” says Umer, who is a student at the Islamia College in Srinagar.
At first, afraid that he would not be able to take care of his family if he also tested positive, Umer did not take a test. He has since tested negative.
Two days after her positive test result, Haseena started struggling to breathe.
“My mother felt a sudden breathlessness and could not speak or move. With no medical experience whatsoever, I called a doctor friend of mine who suggested we admit my mother to the government hospital in Srinagar. I took her straight there.”
But the conditions in the hospital made him panic, he says.
“The moment I entered the hospital, it was so crowded with distressed people all around that I started losing my mind right there. I was like a madman… trembling.
“My mother was unable to breathe. Once she was admitted, we saw that her oxygen level was fluctuating from 75 to 80 [95 is considered safe, damage to the brain is a risk below 80]. I was requesting the staff to put her on oxygen support, however, due to their rules I had to fill in a form first,” says Umer.
According to Umer, this exercise took about 30 minutes because of the chaos in the hospital – all the while his mother’s oxygen level was dropping.
After tests and an x-ray, Umer was informed that his mother would be moved to a ward for COVID patients with pneumonia.
“The doctor told me that the nurse would come herself to provide my mother with medicines on prescribed timings.”
But, he says, after a few hours, the nurses had still not come to his mother. He went to the nurses’ station to ask them to check on her and, eventually, a nurse arrived.
“She gave my mother the injections that were prescribed. That day and the following day, I would have to leave my critical mother alone to get the nurse to give her the prescribed injections each time,” Umer recalls.
By the next day, he says his mother was “was uttering random words and saying things that made no sense”.
“I feared that her brain was being affected by the virus. The doctor told me that with low levels of oxygen, a patient tends to lose control over their senses.”
With almost 3,000 infections and 25 deaths per day being reported currently in Indian-administered Kashmir, hospitals in Srinagar have been overburdened and understaffed.
The hospital was overrun and Umer says he could see that there were not enough staff to tend to all the patients. So he spent the next two days coordinating with the nurses, checking on his mother and carrying oxygen cylinders from the oxygen facility in the hospital.
In the middle of all of this, his father had also started to deteriorate at home and was struggling to breathe. Umer raced to his house and drove his father to a hospital. His father’s condition started improving with the first oxygen cylinder.
But, on April 25, Haseena’s oxygen levels, which had stabilised the previous day, started dropping again – this time to just 65.
“The doctor informed me that in cases where COVID has caused pneumonia, it is hard to predict the future condition of the patient. This made fear run throughout my body. The doctor informed me in most cases the patient does not survive.”
Umer says that at least three people died on his mother’s ward each day. “These people would be fine one minute and the next, they would stop breathing.”
He would tell his mother that he would make sure that she made it safely home.
But her oxygen levels continued to drop. Then, Umer says he heard two people in the ward talking about a possible shortage of oxygen cylinders in the hospital.
“My mother was alive only because of these oxygen cylinders. Hearing that, the possibility of my mother dying if the hospital was to run out of oxygen, was killing me from inside. I rushed to the facility where the oxygen cylinders were kept and got two of them,” he says.
But an oxygen cylinder would only last for an hour and a half.
“Getting these cylinders too was not an easy job, I had to plead to the staff, show them my mother’s reports and make them believe the condition she was in.”
According to reports, there are just 93 ventilators in the whole of Kashmir to cover a population of seven million. In Srinagar, there are only 13,000 litres of oxygen available per minute, which doctors say is far too little to meet the needs of the patients they are receiving.
“One of the cylinders I got was faulty – its key was not functioning, and I started panicking because the cylinder my mother was on, was about to finish and this was the last cylinder I had. I ran across the hospital to find someone who might be able to help me, and finally, after 15 minutes I found a technician who mended the cylinder,” says Umer.
Umer again went to the facility to see if more cylinders had arrived. There were none. He started making calls to his family and friends who gave him the contact details for an NGO which was distributing oxygen cylinders for 50 rupees ($0.68).
“I asked a friend to drop two cylinders for me at the hospital. This was at around three in the morning,” he says. By 6am, his mother was on the second of these.
Umer’s friends tried to get more oxygen cylinders from the NGO, but Haseena died before they were able to.
“I lost my mother in my arms at 8:10am on April 26,” Umer says.
“My mother, the most important woman in my life, whose face I would see every morning, who supported me in all my endeavours, was lying dead in my arms in a hospital bed. Only because oxygen could not be arranged for her on time.”
At 9am, Umer took his mother’s body from the hospital. “I, along with only 10 members of the family, offered last prayers for her in the graveyard. My father still does not know that his wife has passed away.”
Umer’s father is still on oxygen in a different hospital in Srinagar, while Umer’s brother, Wasee, is now stable and mourning his mother’s death, devastated that he never got to see her one last time before she died.