While pundits allege patient neglect or medical incompetence, no one in the Indian press has so far identified the cause. So the question remains: Why are so many babies dying at BC Roy?
According to Dr. S.K. Ghosh, the head of pediatric medicine at the hospital, the answer can be found along those lonely highways that drift in and out of Kolkata from the rural parts of the state.
Ghosh, 51, has the kind of soft, avuncular demeanor and tired eyes that evoke sympathy. A typical day for Ghosh involves telling parents their infant has died. Speaking in his office at the end of a dimly lit hallway painted with murals of Disney characters, he explains that he was hired in the wake of the hospital’s first reported wave of infant deaths in 2011, after Banarjee’s High Level Task Force was formed. Since then, Ghosh’s primary responsibility has been to ensure that lives are saved and that the hospital’s death rate doesn’t spike again.
But Ghosh can’t control the circumstances that dictate the infant mortality rate at the hospital. “This hospital has become media prone,” Ghosh says. “But look instead at the bigger picture. We accept so many patients from other places, and they arrive to us in an already deteriorated state of health.”
Many parents arrived desperate for their children to be seen by anyone at all
By “other places,” Ghosh is referring to what doctors call peripheral hospitals. These are generally government-run university medical centers or smaller, primary health centers that serve specific villages or rural communities. “People sometimes bring their sick babies here from seven or eight hours away,” Ghosh says. “We do everything we can for them, but eventually the patient load becomes too high for us to cope.”
Ghosh’s explanation is common among the private doctors I interviewed in West Bengal. While the media was tarring BC Roy as the hospital of death, relatively few parents actually complained of negligence on the part of the doctors. Most of them, in fact, arrived desperate for their children to be seen by anyone at all.
Infrastructure in West Bengal, like much of India, is extremely weak, and it grows weaker as it spreads out from major urban centers, like Kolkata, into smaller, more remote regions of the state. In these unseen places, parents may seek immediate treatment for their sick or malnourished infant and find nothing but endless lines of other patients or doctors who lack the proper equipment to assist them with their son’s or daughter’s needs. Only then, after all avenues have been exhausted and a state of emergency has been reached, do parents begin the long and expensive journey to Kolkata.
They numbered in the hundreds, crammed into every hallway, clustering along garbage-strewn lawns
I visited BC Roy in February and spoke to parents of ailing babies. One father, Sujiauddin Saji, a 23-year-old house painter, first took his 4-month-old son Suraj to the local hospital in a district 30 miles north of Kolkata to treat illnesses related to malnourishment. The boy developed severe hypothermia while at the local hospital, and the family traveled to Kolkata looking for help. Members of the Saji family, including Sujiauddin, camped out on the BC Roy lawn for five days, waiting for the boy to be nursed back to health.
In Saji’s village, no one had heard of the hospital’s spate of infant deaths.
“I came here because this is a very famous children’s hospital,” Saji explained through a translator. “The last hospital where we were put him in this condition.”