On 8 May 2021, District Collector of East Champaran, Kapil Ashok Shirsat, woke up to an SOS call as the only functioning oxygen plant serving the two districts of Bihar crashed. The plant was supplying oxygen to 800 patients in the east and west Champaran districts.
In the wee hours of the morning, the technical team of the Gayatri Medical and Industrial Gases oxygen plant learned that the crankshaft of a pump used to fill oxygen in cylinders came apart. There was no spare and the only way to solve the crisis was to replace it.
The crisis occurred when the country was grappling with the second wave of COVID-19, leading to oxygen, bed and ventilator shortages. By then, around 200 patients across the country had lost their lives due to oxygen shortage.
However, micro-management, meticulous planning for 12 hours and the quick wit of an IAS officer saved the day.
‘We Rationed The Oxygen Supply’
“I received the call between 7.30 am and 8 am and then instructed the Additional District Magistrate, Sunil Kumar, to reach the spot and prevent any panic situation and maintain law and order,” Kapil tells The Better India.
Kapil says that during those days, the oxygen requirement was at its peak. “There were about 600 patients across 12 hospitals, including private hospitals. It also involved some patients in home isolation. The daily demand was 1,100 oxygen cylinders for both the districts,” he adds.
To ensure an uninterrupted supply of oxygen until the repairs, Kapil had to conceive a disaster management plan.
“In the next 45 minutes, the senior officials were roped in to identify the oxygen demand and tag nearby cylinders to fulfil the requirement. We also kept some oxygen concentrators on stand-by,” he recollects.
Kapil says that a few oxygen cylinders from the local vendors were procured. “While some more came from the primary health centres, another 200 came from the neighbouring district of Samastipur. We then rationed the oxygen supply. Patients with less requirement were treated with the proning technique, which is used to increase oxygen levels in the body,” he adds.
Besides, 15 oxygen cylinders came from Raxaul located near the Indo-Nepal border. “It would have taken longer for the cylinders to be arranged and reach the hospitals from Champaran. Hence, the consulate general at Birgunj arranged the same,” he adds.
In the meantime, Kapil says he managed to locate a crankshaft with Patilpur oxygen plant from the neighbouring Muzaffarnagar district. “However, the part was old and rusty. After a lot of oiling and checks, the part fit as a makeshift arrangement and the oxygen plant started functioning again,” he says.
Meanwhile, a new piece from Delhi flew to Patna, which made its way to the oxygen plant. “The plant remained functional for the night, and the new part was installed on 9 May,” Kapil says.
Dr Akhileshwar Prasad Singh, civil surgeon and chief medical officer at civil hospital, Motihari, says, “Unfortunately, the crisis occurred when the oxygen demand wave was at its peak. There was panic, but everyone helped tackle the crisis and created support systems to cover the patients’ needs. The DC himself paid a visit to the plant and took necessary measures to restore normalcy in hours.”
However, the administration had used up all the buffer and backup stock until then. “We had to replenish the stock. There are always 40 oxygen cylinders in reserve in case of a crisis. The requirement of oxygen for patients was regularised. The situation was under control in the next 48 hours,” he says.
As Kapil breathed easy, he felt fortunate to have saved all lives without undergoing a severe crunch in oxygen supply. “Those 10 hours sent us all in panic mode, but it was only meticulous planning and management that could avert the crisis,” he adds.
Edited by Yoshita Rao