A harrowing personal account of trying to call an ambulance in Kathmandu
A week ago, my aunt’s blood sugar dropped and she lost consciousness. It was 7:00 pm and we called an ambulance. One finally arrived. It was 8:15 pm.
It was an hour of mad frenzy with my husband and I calling a particular number only to be given another as my aunt lay unconscious and sweating profusely. On our way to her place, we called 102, the emergency hotline for ambulance services. A very sleepy sounding woman picked up after what felt like an eternity and told us to call another number. And so, it started.
This process continued for a while till one ambulance driver finally agreed to come. We must have called at least a dozen numbers by then. This driver said he was at Tribhubhan University Teaching Hospital in Maharajgunj and that it would take him 15 minutes to get to our location in Battisputali.
Five minutes later, he called back and ranted about how it was going to be difficult for him to find us, going on and on about needing to know the exact distance from the Gaushala crossroad. We told him we would be standing on the street, keeping an eye out for an ambulance, and that he would see us as soon as he passed Hotel Dwarika.
He called us again 10 minutes later. We could see an ambulance headed in our direction. We asked him if he could see us, waving our arms. It shouldn’t have been difficult, considering there were very few people out on the street and my husband is over six feet tall. But, very nonchalantly, he said he had decided not to come and that we should try somewhere else.
Every ambulance service/driver we called asked us the same thing: Covid ho ki hoina? (“Is it Covid?”), Jworo cha ki chaina? (“Does she have fever?”). Some said they weren’t equipped to handle Covid cases. Most blatantly said they wouldn’t come if she had had fever at any point in recent days. Others just seemed uninterested to do their jobs. I say this because their response was quite literally along the lines of ‘can’t come because we don’t want to’.
One particular ambulance service told us to wait as the ‘Covid ambulance’ had gone to Bhaktapur to pick up three patients and that would take at least two hours.
What complicated things more was that my husband and I had been quarantining at home as one of our friends/colleagues had recently tested positive. We didn’t have any signs of infection but, as we had received both the vaccines, we feared we could be asymptomatic.
So, we didn’t think it was a good idea to take my aunt to the hospital in our car. We also felt we wouldn’t be able to carry her down two flights of stairs without chancing further injury. But it was becoming increasingly likely that this was the risk we would have to take.
Then, giving it one last try, I called Dr Shailendra Kushwaha, consultant cardiologist at Norvic International Hospital. Dr Kushwaha had been, until recently, working with Dr J. P Jaiswal who has been my parent’s go-to doctor for two decades now and who has saved both my parents lives at least once.
My aunt was recently discharged from the hospital where she had been under Dr Kushwaha’s care. He has been our knight in shining armor. After talking to me, he got in touch with Norvic’s ambulance services and messaged me a number to call. He even rang back to confirm I had received the text.
When I called the number, in the background, I could hear someone say ‘yo doctor le bhannu bhayeko case ho’ (“This is the case the doctor was talking about”). I sensed they would have said no if they could have. However, even with Dr Kushwaha requesting them to attend to us, we had to go through the rigmarole of talking to two different people, twice each, and assuring them that my aunt didn’t have fever at the moment, and that she had ‘just fainted’. Finally, an ambulance was dispatched.
What happened when the ambulance arrived is another story: With only the driver, who behaved like he was coming to pick up a bag of groceries, and no trained paramedic, more time was wasted in getting someone who couldn’t move on her own into the vehicle and then taking her to the hospital with no medical intervention whatsoever. When we finally reached the hospital and my aunt was rushed to the emergency, her blood glucose level was 25. Had it dropped any further (had there been more delays) she could have gone into a coma.
They say all’s well that ends well. And, fortunately, that has been true for us. But thoughts of that night still make me shudder. We could have been too late. There might have been people for whom it has been too late. I wonder how many people must have lost their lives because they didn’t make it to the hospital on time. That’s the sad reality of the times we live in today.
I reached out to family and friends and asked them if they had faced similar issues. A friend complained about no one picking up the hotline number. Another said the driver started negotiating, saying he would come provided he would be paid 10 times the going rate. Quite a few have had to deal with rude drivers who said they would come, hung up, and then didn’t take their calls anymore.
It’s said that pre-hospital handling is a crucial part of medical care. Various studies have suggested that injuries and deaths can be drastically reduced if you get professional help within a certain time. Ambulance drivers and paramedics are at great risk but given the importance of their work and also the fact that they haven’t quit their jobs in favor of staying at home, should they be allowed to endanger lives by their couldn’t-care-less attitude?
Hospitals and frontline workers are inundated. Despite that, every hospital is still miraculously managing to attend to emergency cases, whether it’s related to covid or not. But inefficient ambulance services with unscrupulous drivers who want to get their paychecks without doing their jobs are unnecessarily putting more lives at risk.