It was a Wednesday afternoon sometime in May 2020, in the middle of the first COVID-19 wave in India. Lockdown was in place, patients were increasing in under-equipped hospitals that were crumbling under the pressure of the pandemic. An exhausted and hungry 27-year-old resident walked into a corridor at the entrance of the Delhi hospital, where he had worked a 24-hour shift, only to be met by an angry group of people.
“It was like they had been waiting for me. I didn’t know who they were, but they knew exactly who I was,” the young doctor, who wished to remain anonymous, told Re:Set.
Mourning and angry, they were family members of a patient who had passed away that morning. They went on to physically and brutally assault the doctor to the extent that he fractured his hand and suffered multiple hematomas (where blood clots cause the patches of skin to turn blue or green).
“I was in such bad shape that I couldn’t work for a month and a half. I had to go back home to recuperate,” the doctor said.
Not only did he have to sustain physical and mental trauma, the doctor had to lie to his parents about how he got his injuries. “If they knew I was beaten up by a patient’s family, they would have asked me to quit and come back home,” he said with a wry smile.
He is not the only healthcare worker who has faced this. Violence against doctors in the country has been steadily increasing in the past few years — a 2015 study found that over 75% of Indian doctors have faced violence at work — and even more so since the start of the pandemic. In the last week alone, there have been two brutal attacks on healthcare workers in Assam and Manipur, where doctors and nurses were critically injured over the death of patients. This has been especially disheartening for healthcare workers who are facing intense burnout due to the pandemic, a weak healthcare system and lack of institutional support.
“My purpose is to help people and I will continue to do so.”
As Indians scramble to access scarce resources with hospitals running out of oxygen amid other essentials, the anger and grief that comes from losing a loved one is often redirected towards healthcare workers, who are already overworked and underpaid, the doctor explained. “They can’t blame ministers in the government or the healthcare system. They see the doctor who treated the patient in front of them, and because they just need to blame someone at that moment, it’s the doctors who end up taking the brunt of it,” he said.
Although the hospital and the Delhi government helped him after his assault, the 27-year-old still doesn’t find that much has been done to improve the situation overall. “We, like so many hospitals, are understaffed. The day the patient died, I was alone on shift with just an intern for help to look after an entire ICU ward of critical patients. None of the senior staff were available to help me out,” he said, adding that, on an average, there are about 300 patients to 1 doctor in a government hospital.
He still feels embarrassed and anxious about the assault.
“I still get palpitations and anxiety whenever I have to walk through that corridor where it occurred,” he said. A year on and a few weeks of counseling after the incident, he has learned to deal with it. “I went over everything that led up to the assault that day and I found that I had given the patient everything I could which was in my power,” he told Re:Set. “The patient passed away because of the disease and not because I didn’t do enough.”
So what keeps him going? “I realized it was one patient’s family that got furious and took it out on me. But I also have many other patients who have been grateful for my help and have thanked me. I chose to focus on those people. My purpose is to help people and I will continue to do so,” he said.