Kolkata: Since the nationwide lockdown was enforced to curb the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic on 25 March, patients of diseases like cancer and kidney ailments have had a hard time accessing regular treatment. But a Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader in West Bengal is earning praise for providing dialysis to patients dependent on it, charging just Rs 50 per procedure.
The leader in question is Fuad Halim, a 49-year-old medical doctor who runs a small standalone dialysis unit near Park Street, south Kolkata, under the aegis of Kolkata Swasthya Sankalpa, an NGO which he runs with 60 of his friends and relatives.
So far, Halim’s team of three doctors and four technicians has performed 2,190 procedures since the lockdown began. And what’s more, at a time when hospitals are allegedly turning away patients fearing Covid infections, Halim’s unit is taking in all patients, Covid-positive or negative, with just one caveat — after dialysis, a symptomatic patient has to be admitted to a government fever clinic for tests.
The idea and the man behind it
Fuad Halim is the son of Hashim Abdul Halim, who had served as speaker of the West Bengal assembly for 29 years from 1982 to 2011, when the 34-year Left Front rule came to an end at the hands of Mamata Banerjee and the Trinamool Congress.
Halim junior contested the 2019 Lok Sabha polls from Diamond Harbour on a CPI(M) ticket, finishing a distant third with less than one lakh votes, while the winner, chief minister’s nephew Abhishek Banerjee, got nearly eight lakh votes.
Fuad Halim is also general secretary of the CPI(M)’s People’s Relief Committee, but Swasthya Sankalpa, founded in 2008, is not affiliated to the party.
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Halim says it is the first standalone dialysis unit in the region, as they are generally attached to government and private hospitals, where patients need to queue up.
“We wanted to offer affordable and scientific dialysis facilities to people. Patients who are suffering from kidney ailments go through a huge financial strain. Apart from the physical pain they bear, most of them generally cannot cope with the expenses,” Halim told ThePrint. “So, some of my school friends and cousins and I decided to do something about it. We started a five bed unit in 2008; I started it here in my residence.”
“Initially, we used to charge Rs 350 per procedure, and we never increased rates. In government hospitals, dialysis may cost around Rs 900 to 1,200. For Swastha Sathi (government medical scheme) beneficiaries, dialysis is done free of cost,” he continued.
“But waiting time is very high in government hospitals, and maintenance is also not up to the mark most of the time. Here, we perform the procedures in a scientific and hygienic way.”
Slashing cost under lockdown
Since the lockdown was imposed to curb the spread of the Covid-19 in India, Fuad Halim and his team decided to bring down the cost of dialysis to Rs 50 per procedure, and to treat Covid-positive and -negative patients.
“We never discriminated. There are patients whom we treated here and then sent to fever clinics, after seeing symptoms. They later tested positive. There are also patients who came to us after testing negative and we performed the procedures,” he said. “Our technicians and doctors comply with all Covid-19 protocols and guidelines while doing the procedures. Until now, none of our staff have got infected.”
Asked how his unit can get by charging just Rs 50 per procedure, Halim said the cost is borne by him and friends. Halim’s family is financially well-off — in his affidavit submitted to the Election Commission in 2019, he mentioned total assets worth Rs 3.60 crore.
“Three doctors work here voluntarily, while we pay the technicians. Our group has almost 60 members, mainly friends and family. We bear the financial burden together. We look at this initiative as part of our social responsibility,” he said.
Halim’s unit conducts 35 to 40 dialysis procedures per day, with nine sets of apparatus. The unit does not have air-conditioning, or a waiting area for patients and family members, or an elevator. “We have tried to minimise the cost of these fancy accessories. These do not have any connection with the treatment or the procedures,” he said.
‘Saviour’ for patients
Patients are glad that Halim and his staff are on hand to help them, even in this time of crisis.
Nusrat Amin, 26, who requires three procedures a week, told ThePrint: “I have been on dialysis for the last two years. My creatinine level shoots up abnormally and triggers acute respiratory distress. I had tried in some private nursing homes locally, but I suffered a lot. But they (Halim’s unit) do it professionally.”
Amin recounted her ordeal in a private nursing home about four months ago, when she was admitted with breathing difficulties.
“They charged Rs 1,800 per dialysis. But my blood pressure shot up and triggered serious respiratory issues,” said Amin, a homemaker who resides in Mominpur.
“I have a two-year-old child and my husband works at a call centre. During the lockdown, his job is also not stable. We could not afford this expensive treatment outside,” she said when asked why she had gone to Halim’s unit.
Ashfaque Ahmed, 47, who suffers from chronic kidney disease, requires a transplant but can’t afford it. So, he needs to have dialysis twice a week. “I started getting the procedure done in a government hospital — I stayed in the general ward and it was very unhygienic. I cannot bear the expenses of a private hospital, so Dr Halim is a saviour for us,” Ahmed said.
Ahmed used to run coaching classes, but his students left him due to his health troubles. “I can barely provide for my family now. I would have not survived this long had Dr Halim not been there,” he said.
However, Ahmed did point out a problem he faced because of the lack of an elevator at Halim’s facility.
“His unit does not have a lift and the dialysis unit is on the second floor. It is difficult for us to climb stairs. But, Dr Halim told us he could not install lifts, because he needs to curtail the running,” Ahmed added.
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