Hindustan Times ST (Jaipur)
Chennai nurse braves fire to save newborns
P Jayakumar, had just finished his duty as a scrub nurse in two C-section surgeries and was writing charts outside the operation theatre when he started hearing insistent screams. When he went to check, he was able to spot a crowd but could barely see anyone as a thick black smog had engulfed outside the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). It was May 26 and past 8.30 pm at the Government Kasturba Gandhi Hospital for Women and Children, one of the busiest maternity hospitals in the heart of Chennai.
A fire had broken out from the AC in the duty doctor’s room adjacent to the NICU where there were more than 40 neonates, including three newborn babies on a ventilator. But, at that time Jayakumar, 35, couldn’t see the source of the fire though he had entered the room. “I couldn’t even see the fire nor the person next to me,” he recalls. “But I was only thinking of the babies because if it entered the NICU, it would have created a big disaster because they can’t tolerate that type of hazardous fog. They will collapse in 10 seconds.”
Having been trained for fire emergencies seven years ago, Jayakumar ran the operation solely before fire and rescue teams could arrive. When he found the source of the fire his anxiety gripped him more. The floor below the source of the fire was the manifold room where additional oxygen cylinders were stored due to the Covid-19 pandemic. This was a second potential disaster. The NICU staff had locked themselves from the inside, switched off all power and oxygen lines and began manual hyperinflation for the babies.
Jayakumar is asthmatic. “But, at that time I didn’t know from where I got the energy,” he says. “There was no time to give instructions to someone else. My mind was only thinking I’ve to stop the fire.” In half an hour he had emptied 12 fire extinguishers to put out the fire and reduce the thick smog. After bringing the situation under control, Jayakumar collapsed.
He was treated in the ICU for five days for multiple problems after he had inhaled large amounts of carbon dioxide and toxic fumes. “My peripheral controls were low, and I couldn’t even hold a cup to drink water for the first three days,” he says. He still has breathing difficulties due to his asthmatic condition and has reddish eyes. Despite wearing a PPE, his whole body had been covered with chemicals from the extinguisher. “It was unbearably hot, and my skin had turned into a hash colour, but it is getting better,” says Jayakumar.
He lives in Ponneri, a town in adjoining Thiruvallur district with his wife and two daughters, aged 5 and 3, from where he commutes to Chennai every day.