'I'm not giving enough': CT doctors fight COVID online in their India homeland

Photo of Julia Bergman

Dr. Sujata Prasad traveled to India in March, as she does three times every year, to care for people living in the slums of the northern city of Noida. Many are migrants from other parts of the country.

The Madison internist triaged patients on the streets, answered their medical questions and taught them how to access health care. Her home country had largely escaped the worst of the COVID-19 crisis that had plagued other parts of the world.

Then came a devastating second wave.

India’s Health Ministry has reported nearly 26 million cases and more than 287 million deaths — totals that are likely underestimated, experts say.

Now, Prasad spends her Sundays in front of her computer screen at home, providing medical advice to sick and scared people in India.

She is one of countless Indian and Indian-American doctors in the United States who are providing medical guidance online to patients in the homeland. She’s part of a diaspora, physically far from the COVID-19 crisis and in a place that’s largely returning to normal, that’s yearning for ways to help their friends, family and even those they don’t know.

“Every day I feel like I’m not giving enough of myself,” said Prasad, who was born in India but grew up in Italy as her father worked for the United Nations.

A vast network of docs

Prasad, 60, is a member of the Connecticut Association of Physicians of Indian Origin, a group with 250 active members, which, in addition to providing telehealth services, has raised money to build makeshift ICU beds and buy oxygen concentraters. It’s one of many grassroots efforts in Connecticut and across the country providing emergency aid to India.

That Connecticut group is part of the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin, with 80,000 members, which organized the telehealth operation in the wake of the second wave.

It’s not just Indian doctors who are involved. State Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor, a Pakistani-born physician and lung specialist, has been helping his constituents who have family in India, logging onto WhatsApp to offer medical guidance.

Ritu Goel, of South Windsor, said she reached out to Anwar in the early hours of the morning about her brother-in-law who was sick in the hospital. He responded right away. But it was too late.

Goel’s biggest guilt, she said, was not calling Anwar sooner. “If I had called him day one, when he had a 99 degree fever,” she said. “I think we could’ve saved my brother-in-law.”

The U.S. doctors doing the telehealth sessions are not trying to supplant the medical professionals on the front lines in India, but rather to triage patients, determining who has a mild case and should stay home and quarantine, and whose condition is severe, potentially requiring hospitalization. They also help identify other diseases than Covid-19 that could be making the person sick.

‘People get panicked’

With hospitals strained and supplies such as medical oxygen in short supply, the goal is to avoid people going to the hospital if they don’t need to, potentially infecting others in the process.

“People get panicked and they go to the hospital,” Prasad said. “We’re trying to keep them away from the hospital unless their condition deteriorates.”

The telehealth sessions occur daily over Zoom. One by one a new face appears on the screen. Sometimes the person is calling about their own symptoms. Other times they are asking for guidance for a family member.

“People in the villages reach out. People who are in the cities. People who don’t have any means,” Prasad said. “People in the hospital who want a second opinion.”

The doctors provide information on which hospitals have beds available, where they can get oxygen, a COVID-19 test or vaccination — though India’s vaccine rollout has been hamstrung due to a shortage of doses.

‘Please, do you know somebody?’

During a recent telehealth session, a man told Prasad he tested postive for COVID-19 and was battling a fever and sore throat for several days. He wondered if he should be tested again. Prasad told him no, that he likely had a mild case and advised him to quarantine at home for at least 14 days, along with family members.

Another man asked about his 33-year-old wife, who came down with COVID-19 ten days earlier. Her fever had subsided, but she was still taking medications. Many Indians, fearful of the disease, will take a “cocktail of medicines,” Prasad said, antibiotics and anti-viral medications, “whatever they can get” when they don’t need to.

Prasad asked about the wife’s oxygen levels, which appeared stable, and advised the husband if his wife didn’t have an appetite, he could get her rehydration packs to ensure she got nutrients. Sometimes she advises people to drink the water they’ve used to cook Dal — Indian lentils — to get protein.

One of the patients was a man in an intensive care unit. He couldn’t get an IV — another critical supply shortage — and wondered how the doctors could help. There was no easy solution.

“It is sad that everyone I know in Connecticut has some family member or friend either who has passed away or is in the hospital,” said Dr. Sushil Gupta, president of the Connecticut group and a pulmonologist from Woodbridge.

“I keep getting the calls, at least two to three calls a day, either from my patients or other physicians saying please, do you know somebody in New Delhi who you can arrange to get an oxygen concentrator from?” Gupta said.

Personal losses for the doctors

The sheer volume of the crisis is not lost on the doctors, who’ve experienced their own tragedies.

Gupta’s nephew died recently, shortly after his mother, Gupta’s sister, had returned home following two weeks in the ICU due to COVID-19.

“It is very heartbreaking,” Gupta said.

Prasad lost one of her closest friends, a 55-year-old mother, wife and teacher, and her aunt is in the ICU. The friend was someone she grew up with in the summers when she visited the village in India where her mother is from.

“I felt so sad when I heard about it. So sad. We were very close,” she said. “We played all day long.”

When she left each summer to go back to Italy, her friend’s family, who did not have much money, would give her bangles to take home, a reminder of her time in India.

It was those visits to the village, Prasad said, that inspired her to go back and help out in the slums. She’s also gone into orphanges to teach children how to knit, paint and read, provided aid to blind shelters and done health checks for school children.

“I just feel there is so much more we can keep doing,” she said.