Doctors make life-and-death decisions as India’s battle against COVID-19 rages on

Rohan Aggarwal is 26 years old.

He doesn’t even complete his medical training until next year.

And yet, at one of the best hospitals in India, he is the doctor who must decide who will live and who will die when patients come to him gasping for breath, their family members begging for mercy.

As India’s health-care system teeters on the verge of collapse during a brutal second wave of the novel coronavirus, Aggarwal makes those decisions during a 27-hour shift that includes a grim overnight stint in charge of the emergency room at the New Delhi hospital where he works.

(Danish Siddiqui/Reuters)

Patients, relatives and staff at Holy Family Hospital know that there aren’t enough beds, oxygen or ventilators to keep everyone who arrives there alive.

‘We are just humans’

Aggarwal says decisions about who should be saved “should be decided by God.”

“We are not made for that — we are just humans. But at this point in time, we are being made to do this.”

(Danish Siddiqui/Reuters)

India has reported a global record of more than 300,000 daily cases for the last two weeks — and experts say those figures are almost certainly conservative.

In the capital of New Delhi there are more than 5,000 COVID-19 intensive care unit beds. Fewer than 20 of those are free at any one time.

(Danish Siddiqui/Reuters)

Patients rush from hospital to hospital, dying on the street or at home, while oxygen trucks move under armed guard to facilities with perilously low stocks.

Crematoriums work around the clock, throwing up plumes of smoke as more bodies arrive every few minutes.

Not yet vaccinated

Aggarwal says he fears what will happen if he gets infected, too. He knows that his own hospital will be unlikely to find him a bed. 

He is unvaccinated. He was sick in January when shots for medical professionals were being rolled out, and then by February, he began to relax.

“We were all under the misconception the virus had gone.” 

(Danish Siddiqui/Reuters)

Aggarwal, who was raised in New Delhi, has wanted to be a doctor since he was six years old. It’s a job that carries huge prestige in India.

He passed his first set of exams when he was 19 and began training at a medical college attached to a government hospital in the east of the capital.

(Danish Siddiqui/Reuters)

But this wasn’t what he expected when he moved to the missionary-founded Holy Family Hospital, where depictions of Christ are everywhere: looming over the main staircase, watching over patients in the ICU, in the cheap plaster idols once for sale in the shuttered gift shop.

“I am vaccinated by the precious blood of Jesus,” one poster reads. “No virus can touch me.”

(Danish Siddiqui/Reuters)

Sumit Ray, the hospital’s medical superintendent and head of the ICU, says staff are doing everything they can.

“The doctors and nurses are demoralized,” he said. “They know they can do better, but they just don’t have the time.”

No matter where Aggarwal is, he hears the sound of heart-rate monitors.

He hears the staccato bursts of their gentle chimes as he naps fitfully at the hospital. But he also hears them at home in his own bed, making it impossible to forget about the deaths under his care, not from lack of trying, but from a lack of resources.

(Danish Siddiqui/Reuters)

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