Purnea: On 12 May, around 3.30 am, the only oxygen plant in Bihar’s Purnea district broke down. The plant would take care of the district’s daily requirement but did not have a facility to store the medical oxygen it produced.
By 7 am, the WhatsApp groups of Purnea’s nodal officers started flooding with SOS messages, and people had taken to social media asking for help. For Purnea district, 300 kilometres away from state capital Patna, this was the “biggest crisis” so far during the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Panic was spreading fast with each social media post. Lives of nearly 250 critically ill patients across 13 hospitals, 40 of them on ventilators, were at stake if medical oxygen was not arranged within a few hours.
This could have been another disastrous day in the Covid timeline of India that has of late lost many precious lives only due to acute shortage of oxygen.
But Purnea averted such a disaster, and has one man to thank for it — District Magistrate Rahul Kumar.
The top official not only arranged the required medical oxygen within hours but also managed to restart the broken-down oxygen plant in Maranga industrial area, 5 km from the main city, within a day.
Many Twitter users took to the microblogging site to laud the 2011-batch IAS officer who managed to save the day with his smart planning.
Kumar told ThePrint about the operation, and noted the high point of the day — that they “did not waste a single minute in passing orders or papers” to achieve ultimate goal of saving lives.
The eight-hour operation that Kumar led from the Covid control room in Purnea Sadar Hospital not only saved the life of 250 critical Covid patients but should also serve as a lesson in crisis management.
The district has reported 45 Covid deaths in the second wave of the pandemic, according to latest official figures.
When a medical hub in remote region faced oxygen shortage
Purnea has been a medical hub for decades now. It caters to the most backward districts of eastern Bihar — such as Kishanganj, Araria, Khaghria, Supaul and Saharsa. During the second Covid wave, 10 big private hospitals in the Purnea district have become the lifeline for Covid patients coming from these neighbouring districts.
On 12 May, the district reported 409 fresh Covid cases, taking the total active caseload to 2,684.
Narrating the chain of events of the day, DM Rahul Kumar said: “The first SOS call came from one of our biggest private hospitals, Max7. The director called me to update that he is left with four hours’ backup. I immediately checked the Bhagalpur supply, only to find out that…we could not get a single cylinder from the district.”
This was a big blow to the district as things could have gone wrong in a few hours.
More private hospitals then started putting up notices saying they are running out of oxygen, which led to families of the critical patients taking to Twitter to beg for oxygen.
The DM started getting calls from politicians across the state, with a few offering to help and some only to inquire.
An 8-hour mission
Rahul Kumar said things looked grim when he reached the control room at 8 am. To instill confidence in the nodal officers and the district administration, he posted a tweet admitting to the oxygen shortage but said he was on top of the matter.
“As an administrator, it is very crucial to be accountable and bring that confidence in people,” he told ThePrint.
Sharing more details about the oxygen supply chain in Purnea, he said: “Our oxygen plant produces 350 cylinders every day. But for Covid patients, we need 500-550 cylinders on an average basis. So I decided to appoint three nodal officers at the plant to work in three shifts. This is to ensure we produce oxygen 24 hours. The remaining 150 oxygen cylinders were outsourced from Bhagalpur.”
He also engaged four private distributors for the supply. “Each distributor works closely with our drug inspectors.” he added.
Help from neighbouring districts
At a time when there is a tussle between states over oxygen supply at the national level, Bihar saw its districts coming to each other’s help in the oxygen crisis.
Rahul Kumar recalled: “A handful of cylinders were managed from our primary health centres but they were not enough. Since Max7 and Jivan hospitals needed immediate help, our Dhamdaha subdivision sent 15 oxygen cylinders to these hospitals within half an hour, out of which 10 were sent to Max7 and five to Jivan Hospital.”
But Max7 flagged an SOS again that it needed “jumbo cylinders”.
“I got the doctors on call, who are in charge of the four wings of Sadar Hospital. They identified the patients with more than 90 SPO2 levels. The oxygen flow for these patients was slowed down a bit so the stock could last a few more hours. The Sadar Hospital then sent its jumbo cylinders to Max7. Lives could have been lost within a few minutes, but we did not waste a single minute in passing orders or papers,” Kumar said.
The district magistrates from Kishanganj, Katihar and Supaul also came forward to help Purnea. Supaul immediately sent 15 cylinders, while Katihar and Kishanganj sent 10 cylinders each.
Meanwhile, MLC Dileep Jaiswal also saw the SOS calls on Twitter and promised to send 40 cylinders from his medical college in Kishanganj.
“At the end of the day, we got 65 and 60 oxygen cylinders respectively from Bhagalpur and Siliguri around 8 pm. By this time, we also got our machines repaired and the plant started again,” Kumar added.