A Heartfelt Gesture

Miracles do happen. Every time I doubt this, something happens to restore my faith. Yesterday India’s leading interventional cardiologist and chairman of the Fortis Escorts Heart Institute, Dr. Ashok Seth, agreed to take on the treatment of a 45-year-old underprivileged man, Syed Ahmed, who suffered a heart attack earlier this year and has been diagnosed with one hundred percent blockages in two major arteries of his heart.

I met Syed twenty years ago, when he came into our home for a wall painting job. He stood out because he was the most skilled, soft-spoken manner and unobtrusive of all the workers. A stressful aspect of home renovation is dealing with workers, and Syed was a boon. He soon became a regular in the homes of our extended family and friends.

So my heart went out to him when he suffered a cardiac episode earlier this year. Luckily he made it to Safdarjung hospital in time to avert an attack. He was discharged with a prescription for an angiography, but the machine at the hospital was dysfunctional. After two frustrating months of going back and forth from the hospital, he gave up. At that stage, I decided to try and help him negotiate the public health system. Being illiterate is a major hurdle for him. So I set off with him to Safdarjung hospital, confident that we would find a way of getting treatment.

Two months later, my confidence has turned into despair. It’s an understatement to say that the public health system is in shambles. The reality is that any poor person seeking treatment in a hospital like this one is made to feel even worse about his circumstances. Doctors are Kings here, which is probably why they would never switch jobs.

Every time I accompanied Syed to the Cardiac O.P.D, the doctor was rude and dismissive. He refused to meet my eye and brushed aside my questions. I was willing to tolerate this, but the medico did whatever he could to obstruct Syed’s treatment. When Syed pulled out the health insurance card issued by the government to him on the basis of his BPL status, the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY) card, the doctor refused to grant him free treatment. “I’ve never heard of it,” he declared. Despite my pleas, he wouldn’t make the effort to confirm the validity of the card. After spending several hours in the MS wing of the hospital, waiting for “officials” to help us out with this dismal situation, I decided to call it quits: Even if Syed managed to avail of his rights to free treatment, the treating cardiologist would remain the same.

Last week, approached Escorts with trepidation, unsure whether they would take on Syed’s case. Dr. Seth didn’t take more than a few minutes to say yes. “What’s the point of doing the work I do if I can’t help someone in Syed’s position to live longer,” he declared, when I thanked him. Syed was admitted to Escorts for treatment yesterday, giving me confidence that private hospitals are stepping up and assuming some responsibility for the healthcare of the poor.

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