It was a slow night in the first week of May at the drive-through oxygen facility in Gurgaon, where I had been volunteering for about a week. Run by Hemkunt Foundation, the facility had sprung up in the middle of the deadly second wave of Covid-19 to offer oxygen support to desperate patients, who were unable to find hospital beds despite falling oxygen levels.

I was on the night shift. Only two or three patients had come in till 1 am, when suddenly four young men came rushing in, rambling. It was difficult to understand what they were saying – their thick accents, the heat of May, and an eerie silence broken by their voices, did not help.

Rahul Manchanda, a co-volunteer and I, both tried hard to make sense of what they were saying. All we gathered was that their father was in the emergency ward at Medanta Hospital, his oxygen was sinking, and the hospital was not helping.

We decided to take a small cylinder of 7-litre capacity and go with them to Medanta. I had only visited two hospital emergencies until then, Paras and Artemis, both full, so I was expecting a similar sight at Medanta.

My first surprise came when we walked not into the emergency ward, but into the hospital waiting area. Security guards surrounded us, so I immediately asserted my identity as an army captain to ward them off. As we walked down an almost empty corridor of this large hospital, I was struck by how housekeeping and security personnel outnumbered patients and medical staff.

Far away seated among empty chairs we finally saw a couple: an elderly man and his wife. Quiet, waiting, almost expecting their fate. The man’s oxygen saturation level was at 66 percent – anything below the 94-mark is seen as a matter of concern.

Since we were inside the hospital building, we were not allowed to just plug him to the cylinder and administer oxygen. The young men were frantic, frustrated, and slowly we started understanding how the family had landed up at the hospital. The patient, a 52-year-old from a village in Uttar Pradesh’s Kannauj district, had been regularly coming to Medanta for the past three years for kidney treatment. His quarterly kidney check-up was due, when he came down with fever. The family decided to drive him 400 km to a hospital that he trusted, to consult a doctor they knew.

They had arrived at the hospital in the middle of the night. The patient had been put through a battery of tests in the morning, including for Covid-19. In the afternoon, the nephrologist had seen him, writing on a slip: “Ref to Emergency for admission and dialysis”.

The family had gone to the emergency ward, thinking they would get a bed. But they were first asked to get the patient’s chest CT-scan done, which they did. Finally, after all the tests and after being charged Rs 11,000, they were asked to go somewhere else as the hospital had no Covid-19 bed.

It had been more than 30 hours since they had left home; about 24 hours in the hospital. The patient was sinking. Where should they go, they lamented. There was no one to answer that. Worse, no one at Medanta was even trying to. It was 1.30 am now.

My mind was reeling. I was surrounded by the family and four security guards from Medanta. I insisted on seeing a doctor. I was then taken to the emergency ward, a family member in tow. My colleague stayed back with the patient, oxygen cylinder in hand, unable to give it to him. The rules forbade it.

The emergency doctor came out, saw the consulting doctor’s remarks and said, “How stupid. He should have never written admission without checking if we have Covid beds or not.”

“What should they do?” I asked him.

“Ask them to get out of Delhi-NCR and start driving towards UP,” he said. NCR is the National Capital Region. “In smaller towns they might find something.”

The advice numbed my brain. I couldn’t understand where this family would go. But the doctor was polite. The family at least felt heard.

“Kahan jayen Madamji?” they asked me. Where should we go, Madam?

“Bhaiya, ghar ki taraf ravana ho jao,” I told them, unable to comprehend even my own voice. Brother, go towards home.

“Aap ke paas ruk jaayein raat ko? May we stay at your site through the night? We will leave tomorrow morning,” he said, politely.

I told them we weren’t a medical facility, that they needed a bed in an Intensive Care Unit. Three people had died the previous night at our site, one a dialysis patient, to whom we realised we couldn’t even offer coconut water since the family told us the doctor had advised against it. My own exhaustion was making me think, “Please don’t die in front of me.”

The family interrupted my thoughts, asking if they could give their father coconut water – he was parched. I told them I wasn’t sure, I wasn’t a doctor, that we would have to ask one. We both looked around, there was no one to ask.

The young men decided to leave and told their parents so. The old man said reluctantly that it was hot: “Yaahin rahne do. Let me be here.” As if sensing his death, he just wanted to die comfortably. His oxygen level was 76.

We needed to teach the family how to use the oxygen cylinder that they could carry with them in the car, so we walked out to the parking lot with three young members.

The security men surrounding the patient finally spoke. All they asked was, “Are they leaving?”

“Yes,” I said.

We sat on the pavement of the parking lot with three members of the family and a cab driver. My colleague struggled with the cylinder attachments – something about the welding was making it difficult to adjust the fittings. I stared into the dark night. It was 2 am.

I suddenly remembered a Noida helpline number. I dialled. A sensible voice responded. He said there was no bed in Noida, but to check again at 8 am. He gave us two more helpline numbers to call, one for Ghaziabad and one for Delhi. There was no bed in Ghaziabad either – we were asked to check again at 9 am.

On the Delhi helpline number, as we gave all the patient details, I thought that the voice on the other end was probably a volunteer like me, doing the best he could. He told us that a Covid-19 facility had just opened in Burari in North Delhi, and that they had beds. We double checked: did they have ICU beds? The volunteer confirmed – yes, they did.

It would take them less than two hours to get there. We told them to go home via Burari. The son asked me again if they could spend the night at our facility. Again, I said no, we weren’t a medical facility. He said ok, politely.

My colleague and I left, our own exhaustion catching up with us. At 4 am, both Rahul and I got a call from one of the family members saying that the Burari facility was not taking anyone with an oxygen saturation level below 85.

The family asked us what they should do. My mind had stopped working by then. I told them to go towards Uttar Pradesh. The same thing that the Medanta emergency doctor had said, without asking what the patient’s saturation level was, or whether they had oxygen support during travel. It was my last communication with the family.

I went to sleep at some point, my night shift over. The next day, Rahul said the patient had died that afternoon. That he never made it to any facility, not even to ours.

Editor’s note: Medanta Hospital did not respond to an email sent to its chairman and managing director and text messages sent to its spokesperson seeking their comments to the author’s first person account.

The author served in the Indian Army as a short service commission officer.