Rohan Aggarwal is 26 years old. He doesn’t even complete his medical training until next year. And yet, at one of the best hospitals in India, he is the doctor who must decide who will live and who will die when patients come to him gasping for breath, their family members begging for mercy.
As India’s healthcare system teeters on the verge of collapse during a brutal second wave of the novel coronavirus, Aggarwal makes those decisions during a 27-hour workday that includes a grim overnight shift in charge of the emergency room at his New Delhi hospital.
Everyone at Holy Family Hospital – patients, relatives and staff – knows there aren’t enough beds, not enough oxygen or ventilators to keep everyone who arrives at the hospital’s front gates alive.
“Who to be saved, who not to be saved should be decided by God,” Aggarwal says.
“We are not made for that – we are just humans. But at this point in time, we are being made to do this.”
India has reported a global record of more than 300,000 daily cases for the last two weeks – figures experts say are almost certainly conservative. In the capital, fewer than 20 of more than 5,000 COVID-19 ICU beds are free at any one time. Patients rush from hospital to hospital, dying on the street or at home, while oxygen trucks move under armed guard to facilities with perilously low stocks. Crematoriums work round the clock, throwing up plumes of smoke as the bodies of victims arrive every few minutes.
During his marathon shift, which Reuters documented to provide one of the most comprehensive accounts of overwhelmed hospitals during India’s harrowing surge, Aggarwal says he fears what will happen if he gets infected too, knowing that his own hospital will be unlikely to find him a bed.
He is unvaccinated: He was sick in January when shots for medical professionals were being rolled out, and then by February, he began to relax.
“We were all under the misconception the virus had gone,” he says.
When Aggarwal begins his shift around 9 a.m., four bodies lie in one of the areas where staff are supposed to remove their protective equipment.
In the emergency room, conditions are even more cramped. Patients and relatives crowd every available space, many wearing no protection except for a simple cloth mask. Doctors and nurses have stopped wearing full protective equipment too – it is simply too difficult to work in.
Trolleys are close enough for patients to touch each other. One man even lies in a storage area surrounded by bins of medical waste, a relative dragging in a new oxygen cylinder as one runs out.
In normal circumstances, Holy Family is one of the best hospitals in the country, attracting patients from across the world – and it still is, considering the conditions in government hospitals, where patients lie two to a bed, or die outside on trolleys in the baking sun.
But the facility is still in a desperate position.
The hospital, which normally has capacity for 275 adults, is currently caring for 385. A sign posted outside shows the number of available general and intensive-care COVID beds remains the same as it has for weeks: zero.
Heading the ER, with its broken bones and coughs and colds, is usually a relatively simple task, left to a more junior doctor while senior consultants and specialists work in the ICU, where serious cases are quickly escalated. That system has long broken down, and the on-duty doctor in the ER is now one of the most critical in the hospital.
Before he begins his turn in the ER, Aggarwal first makes his rounds of the general COVID wards. Along with a senior colleague, he is responsible for 65 patients. That gives him a maximum of three to four minutes to see each one before any emergencies, which frequently occur.
He is minutes into his rounds when he receives an urgent call – one of his patients is sick. He sprints down the stairs and along a dimly lit corridor to Room 323, where an elderly man is barely conscious.
“He is on the way down,” Aggarwal…