STRANGER THAN THE NEWS
Four- day- old’s death unmasks the rot in Jalandhar Civil Hospital, the largest state- run facility
The Hindu cremation ground at Jalandhar’s Nurpur Colony has a new grave. A four- day- old baby girl born to Anita, 30, and Sanjiv Kumar, 26, was interred here just as the sun climbed above the city’s smoggy horizon on July 26. There was no ritual on the occasion. The parents, both poor Scheduled Caste daily wagers, could not even afford a priest.
On July 25, the infant, born prematurely at 30 weeks on July 22, had inexplicably died after being treated for infantile jaundice in the paediatric ward at the Jalandhar Civil Hospital. Kumar was convinced his daughter died because he did not have the money to pay a Rs 200- user charge the paediatrics nursing staff had asked him to deposit. “The nurses refused to put my child in the machine ( phototherapy unit) even though she had stopped sucking her mother’s milk,” says Kumar.
The incident quickly mushroomed into Punjab’s biggest breaking news. News networks accused Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal and his government of “callously causing the death of an infant by refusing life- saving treatment only because the parents did not have Rs 200 to pay”.
An evidently ignorant and flustered state administration, in a knee- jerk response, ordered the suspension of a staff nurse pending two separate inquiries— one by the district authorities headed by Additional Deputy Commissioner Parneet Bhardwaj and the second by three senior doctors including the civil hospital’s Medical Superintendent ( MS) Iqbal Singh, senior gynaecologist Sangeeta Kapur and the resident paediatrician Jasminder Kaur. Badal, who had initially described the incident as “a routine error”, also changed his stance and announced a compensation of Rs 1 lakh to the parents of the deceased child.
While the inquiry reports are yet to be made public, investigations by INDIA TODAY have uncovered a reality that is almost completely contrary to news reports emanating from Jalandhar and what the state government too seems to have convinced itself of.
Anita was admitted to the maternity ward of Jalandhar Civil Hospital on July 20 morning. Two days later, in the absence of doctors, Neelam Sharma, the staff nurse on duty, helped her deliver a baby girl. As in all cases of poor parents opting for government- institutionalised deliveries, Sanjiv and Anita were handed Rs 1,000 as incentive money. Hospital records show the child was premature and consequently underweight. She also had a mild affliction of infantile jaundice, a condition common in newborns. “It was a normal delivery and we were both thrilled,” says Kumar, who even distributed bakshish amongst the Class IV workers on duty that day.
On July 23, both mother and baby were moved to the paediatric ward. The nurses administered intermittent phototherapy and medication to the infant. “My baby was fine and on regular breastfeeding,” says Anita. However,
NURSES ARE CALLED UPON TO PERFORM PRE- TERM DELIVERIES IN COMPLETE VIOLATION OF MEDICAL RULES.
there was a verbal altercation between nurse Harjit Kaur and the child’s father when she asked him to deposit Rs 200 at the hospital fee counter for use of the phototherapy unit. “The fee is mandatory and we have to keep reminding patients because many of them leave without depositing the money,” says Harjit, adding that nursing staff is forced to deposit the money if patients leave without paying. Both the MS and resident medical officer Surinderpal Singh believe “the child died from choking after breastfeeding”.
The demise of the four- day- old girl has exposed an entirely different scandal than is being alleged— serious bureaucratic negligence and the state administration’s endeavour to run a public healthcare system with almost negligent qualified manpower. The 400- bed Jalandhar Civil Hospital, the largest state- run facility in Punjab, does not possess an incubator. Under the Janani Shishu Suraksha Yojana ( JSSY), a premier National Rural Health Mission scheme extended to Punjab in June 2011, all neonatal care for both mothers and their babies is free up to 28 days after birth. The scheme was never communicated by the state’s health authorities. Punjab Health Systems
Corporation officials issued orders regarding JSSY on July 27, two days after the infant’s death in Jalandhar.
The loss of the couple’s first- born has also focused attention on the gross understaffing at Punjab’s state hospitals. Jasbir Kaur Thind, 50, the president of the Punjab Government Nurses Association, says, “Not a single nurse is posted at the neonatal care unit in the Jalandhar Civil Hospital.”
Thind has other such shockers: “The 38- bed paediatric ward is manned by a single staff nurse,” she says, adding that the hospital has just one paediatrician with no one to fill in for her when she is on leave. On the day Anita’s child died, the paediatric specialist was in Chandigarh for an official meeting. Things are worse in the maternity ward, where nurses are called upon to perform pre- term deliveries in complete violation of medical regulations.
Back in their home, Kumar and Anita mourn the loss of their first- born firmly convinced that the hospital was responsible for their baby girl’s demise. “I had been pining for a baby. Somebody must pay for taking that away from me,” she says.
SANJIV KUMAR ( RIGHT) WITH THE FOUR- DAY- OLD AND HER GRANDMOTHER