Doctors of Indian descent try to help loved ones caught in COVID crisis far away

One doctor told ABC News he feels both "helpless" and "determined."

May 6, 2021, 5:03 AM

As COVID-19 began its deadly surge in India last week, Dr. Vincent Rajkumar, a physician in Rochester, Minnesota, tweeted about how he and other doctors of Indian descent felt "both helpless [and] determined" to help their families and close friends on the other side of the world.

Other American doctors like him responded to his tweet, saying they felt the same way about trying to manage care and shipping supplies from thousands of miles away.

Rajkumar and his wife, who both work at the Mayo Clinic, are doing everything they can.

Lilaben Gautambhai Modi, 80, wears an Oxygen mask as she sits inside an ambulance as waiting to enter a COVID-19 hospital for treatment in Ahmedabad, India, May 5, 2021.
Amit Dave/Reuters

"We have been inundated with phone calls for help in terms of ... securing hospital beds for people or getting oxygen for people or basically providing counseling and care for people who are ill," Rajkumar told ABC News. "This has been going on non-stop for the whole of last week."

He has been trying to find beds and medical supplies for those who need help urgently.

"But at the same time we're also getting calls for ... someone's dying and we don't have oxygen, we don't have a hospital bed, and some of them feel like, maybe we know somebody who can, find the bed. So it's been it's been quite challenging," Rajkumar said. "And we do have friends so we call around and make the phone calls, see see if anyone can help, but it's quite tragic what's going on there."

Dr. Natasha Kathuria, a Houston emergency room doctor, said she "always feared" the pandemic would hit her and her family.

"For a lot of people, it's hard to really comprehend how devastating this virus can be until it enters your own home," Kathuria said. "And it's incredibly devastating that this is how it entered into my home, through another country, which I would have never anticipated."

Kathuria's uncle in Mumbai is in the intensive care unit and Kathuria said it is a "constant battle" to get information about his condition given the different time zones and the strain on the nurses and doctors.

People try to console a woman mourning for the demise of her relative who died of Covid-19 as the body is being transferred into an ambulance at a mortuary in New Delhi on April 29, 2021.
Tauseef Mustafa/AFP via Getty Images

"It's been challenging and just knowing as a physician who's worked through two surges in Texas and seeing what this virus can do to the body, and know how lonely the recovery is, and how incredibly isolating and mentally challenging it is, as well as physically challenging, being this far away is crippling," Kathuria said. "It's hard to think straight."

Kathuria's uncle has not been able to get a ventilator given the short supply, and Kathuria said that navigating the hospital system has been difficult.

"It's challenging, they have a they have a shortage of medications, they have a shortage of everything. They have a shortage of oxygen, they have a shortage of equipment, so for me as a physician in America, to try to understand what's available there in a constantly changing environment," Kathuria said.

Beyond helping family members, doctors who cannot help on the ground in India are trying to mobilize as many resources as possible to help all of the country. Dr. Ash Tewari, who works at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York, started to mobilize supplies after he lost a close friend to COVID-19.

"That made me pretty broken and I didn't know what to do and I didn't want to continue being sad," Tewari said. "I wanted to turn it around and then I realized that he was not the only one, there may be others who may benefit from it."

Tewari, who himself had COVID-19 and was born in Kanpur, spearheaded an effort with help from friends and colleagues to find 25 ventilators and 100 sleep apnea machines with kits to convert them into ventilators. The supplies are being transported to India through a chartered plane to Mumbai, where they will be distributed to five public hospitals in Mumbai, Delhi, Kanpur, Kolkata and Bengaluru.

Staff and volunteers pack up and load oxygen devices and ventilators at the Mt. Sinai warehouse in New York to be sent to aid public hospitals in Mumbai, Delhi, Kanpur, Kolkata and Bengaluru, India.
Mount Sinai Hospital

"Within three weeks, all that evolved, and I must say, everyone I talked [to] and people I don't even know, they just reached out and they helped," Tewari said. "And so that that was one of the most rewarding things that, to get to know that how people who don't even know you want to help when they see suffering."

Rajkumar has also been working with COVID India SOS, a nonprofit working to help respond to the virus in the India. He said there has been lots of generosity and eagerness from people who want to help, calling it "very, very heartwarming to see people want to do something."

Rajkumar and Kathuria are urging loved ones to follow public health guidelines to help prevent their loved ones from getting sick. Rajkumar said he gave his parents, who are both in their 80s, "very strict instructions" about staying home and following health guidelines.

Kathuria has said that reminding her family of public health measures is essential.

Rohan Aggarwal, a resident doctor treating patients suffering from Covid-19, looks at a patient's x-ray scan, inside the emergency room of Holy Family Hospital in New Delhi, India, May 1, 2021.
Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

"One of the best things we can do right now, in this pandemic, if we want to help India, and the people that we love there is just reminding them to stay home and be safe, and wear masks and double mask and wash their hands," Kathuria said.

But being thousands of miles away only makes an emotional and frustrating situation even harder.

"You know a lot of Indian doctors ... we are in a combination of feeling helpless and wanting to do everything at the same time. It's just, on the one hand, you feel totally helpless," Rajkumar said. "On the other hand you're ... motivated to help in any possible way."

ABC News' Sasha Peznik contributed to this report.

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