GORAKHPUR, India — It was around 6 a.m. last Friday, said Mohamed Jahid — the father of a very sick little girl being treated at a government hospital — when the oxygen stopped. The situation was desperate, but the parents of children in the intensive care unit did not panic, because they had no idea what was going on.
Most were villagers like Mr. Jahid, who said they all thought it was normal procedure when the nurses unhooked the ventilators that had been helping keep their children alive, handed out small plastic hand-operated resuscitators and quickly showed the parents how to use them.
With his daughter gasping for air, Mr. Jahid got right to work.
“I pumped and pumped,” he said. He looked around the ward. All the parents were pumping and pumping. Unbeknown to them, the hospital’s supplies of oxygen had been steadily dwindling, after the supplier cut off shipments of liquid oxygen for lack of payment. On Friday, despite repeated warnings from the supplier and hospital technicians, the oxygen ran out.
By the time the flow was stabilized, more than 60 children had died. Many were sick with Japanese encephalitis and other tropical diseases and may have died from other causes, but doctors admitted that the oxygen interruption is likely to have claimed at least several lives.
The children’s deaths have become a national outrage, headlining front pages of all the major newspapers and marring celebrations this week of India’s 70th anniversary of independence.