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United We Fight - Sewa Helpdesk Connects COVID-19 Patients with Resources

26 May 2021 11:08 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

- Jyothsna Prasad, Sewa Volunteer, California, USA

During the first wave of the pandemic last year, although initially, I was oblivious to the situation outside and its impact on people's lives. As I started helping COVID-19 patients and their families, I understood its impact and the havoc it wreaked.    

I worried about my family in India. Waking up to hearing about losing someone in my circle of extended family and friends became a new normal.  As the number of new Coronavirus cases dropped in India and people breathed a sigh of relief, I decided to visit India in March 2021 to see my mom as it had been two years since I last saw her.  

Two weeks into my visit, the number of COVID-19 Cases started to rise again. The current second wave made the last one look like a ripple in the sand. As the world was trying to figure out what was behind the unprecedented surge, many fingers pointed to a series of unfortunate events including a specific COVID-19 variant, unrestricted crowds, and inadequate vaccine coverage.  Unlike in the first wave, when the individuals were testing positive and the rest of their families remained fine, during the second wave entire families got infected.  

The shortage of oxygen and hospital beds proved fatal. Bodies started lining up at the crematoriums. It felt like people were dying not because of the virus but because they were not able to get basic treatment on time. The entire country came to a standstill.  The everyday hustle and bustle of the cities suddenly gave way to an eerie silence, which is so uncommon in India, only to be  interrupted by the blaring sound of an ambulance passing by. I prayed and asked God to make sure whoever was in that ambulance would came back home safe.  

One day, my cousin described how he was trying to look for a hospital bed for his friend’s dad. They had visited every hospital in town with an oxygen cylinder attached to the patient in the back seat of his car only to be denied admission;  all their efforts were in vain – the next day, while they were traveling to find a hospital, his friend’s dad passed away. Hearing this heart-wrenching incident, I was devastated.  

As the infections spread, people started turning to Social Media like What’s App, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to save their loved ones. These platforms became the unofficial COVID-19 Helplines for families.

In the first week of April, I got a call in the middle of the night from a friend from my Engineering college to help her dad who lived in Bangalore to find an Oxygen Cylinder. She sounded desperate sitting thousands of miles away in the San Francisco Bay area.  I dialed all the helpline numbers I found and Googled till I could find someone to purchase oxygen from. I was happy I was able to intervene on time.

The next morning my friend called and said, unfortunately, her dad’s oxygen level was dropping, and he needed a bed at a hospital. That’s when panic struck me, and I must have dialed every hospital in town only to be told- sorry, no beds available. Then another call came in from a friend who needed help for her mother-in-law who was diabetic and tested positive.  I knew I could not do this alone; I was exhausted.  

I reached out to my group of friends who had supported me several times in the past. I knew I could rely on them to help as they are part of my Sewa International family. We started receiving distress calls from friends who lived in California to help their families in India as I was on the ground in India at that time. They felt that there was someone fighting for their loved ones in a location physically closer than they were. Little did they know, that I was as helpless as they were. We formed a WhatsApp group and called it the “Sewa COVID Task Force”.  

By the 3rd week of April, our team had grown. As the COVID-19 second wave got bigger with the number of cases skyrocketing, daily fatalities alarmingly raising, and healthcare infrastructure crumbling, we decided to ramp up our efforts and make it more structured. A number of Sewa International LEAD interns joined our efforts, and Sewa volunteers started helping us from both India and the US. The idea was straight forward; It was going to be a helpline of sorts - there were requests, there were resources, and we would help match the requests to the resources. It sounded simple.

With the help of high school students participating in the Sewa Bay Area Chapter’s LEAD program , we came up with a Google form to intake cases since the hospitals wanted us to submit requests in a specific format. Students also helped build a COVID information-rich resource website that was updated constantly, and the intake form fed into a case spreadsheet that was picked up by the volunteers. The volunteers working on cases would then match the resources to the patient's needs and relay their findings back to the families.

We thought we could do this easily since our volunteer base had gone up to 100+ and the number of cases we were handling was in the 50 to 100 at any given time. That is when we realized that it was one of the hardest things we had ever done in our lives. The healthcare resources such as hospital beds with ventilators and oxygen supply changed dynamically by the minute and there was an acute shortage of most medical necessities that a patient going through COVID would need.

The WhatsApp group also became a platform where SOS calls would be posted. The system had finally come together, but unfortunately, it was too little, too late most of the time. When we started this, we had two choices, either to blame the system or work  with the system to find solutions. We chose the second option, from not knowing anything about oxygen concentrators to learning how the simple air we breathe is turned into Oxygen-rich air was a big change for all of us. We did stumble a few times, but we were resilient.  

As a group, we continue to strive to make sure every patient gets his/her needs met until we exhaust our resources. There are many heroes in our group who do not complain even once how tired they are at 4 in the morning trying to help families facing difficulties to arrange care for their loved ones. Sanjana, a 22-year-old volunteer from India, said she felt guilty even going to sleep.  “When there were so many calls and text messages asking for help, how could I just leave them unattended and go to sleep?”, she asked.

I recall seeing an SOS post on a Facebook group at 2 AM from Delhi. I called the family and they were desperately seeking Remedisivir, the so-called miracle drug, which was hard to find anywhere. The girl on the other end of the phone needed it for her dad who was very sick and I tried checking various leads, but no one picked up my calls that late in the night. I conveyed the information to her and went to bed. When I woke up in the morning, I saw a message from her. It said, "He is no more “- with a lot of broken heart emojis. Before I could finish reading her text, got another SOS call and I was busy answering it. I did not even have time to think. What hits you hard is not the 20 people you could help, but it is the 10 that you couldn’t. That is when I feel completely devastated. I have to admit, I have broken down in tears on so many occasions in these past few days. Losing someone you are trying to help is not easy.  

On the positive side, The sense of community is stronger than ever. It's heartwarming to witness this human chain of kindness hard at work to save lives. We can only do this together. We will overcome this pandemic as a society determined to collaborate, as a country united to fight and as a world resolved to leave no one behind.

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