The route to B.C. Roy
Memorial Hospital for Children in Kolkata is a pilgrimage nobody wants
The overburdened government hospital is West Bengal’s largest
pediatric care center, and after a series of high-profile deaths in
recent years, it has become a public symbol of India’s ongoing struggle
with infant mortality. But the story of B.C. Roy often portrayed in the
national media paints an incomplete picture. In fact, the hospital’s
case points to a larger system that is failing India’s newborns.
June 2011, when 18 babies died at the hospital over the course of two
days. The news was first reported locally, but the outrage spread beyond
Kolkata’s city limits. On national television, newscasters labeled B.C.
Roy a “hospital of death.”
Hoping to blunt a politically poisonous scandal before it spun out of
control, Mamata Banerjee, the state’s chief minister, or head of
government, who doubles as minister of home, health and family welfare,
established an inquiry into the infant deaths. Heading the inquiry was
Dr. Tridib Banerjee, a private practice pediatrician (who is of no
relation to Mamata Banerjee), and is known as the pediatrician to the
state’s wealthy and elite.
Dr. Banerjee created the High Level Task Force, comprised of a group
of health care professionals, to recommend things like the allocation of
new equipment, the hiring of new doctors, and anything else that might
prevent future incidents of infant mortality at the state’s many
government hospitals. As a result, the intensive care unit at B.C. Roy
was expanded, and carefully vetted hires were made.
But the worst was yet to come. In September, two years after adding
modern equipment that Banerjee assured me was “as good anyone would find
in the best American hospitals,” an astounding 41 babies died in the
span of six days.
Roy are high. According to Dr. Banerjee, the shocking rate of infant
deaths experienced in September only represents an increase of about 20
percent over the regular rate at the hospital. In fact, it’s not
uncommon for B.C. Roy to lose four or five babies on consecutive days.
I visited B.C. 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 B.C. Roy lawn for five days,
waiting for the boy to be nursed back to health.
According to Dr. Banerjee, the hospital conditions in Saji’s
district, where his son caught hypothermia, are not even the worst in
the state. Banerjee toured the state’s peripheral hospitals in 2011, as a
response to the original media firestorm. The worst conditions he found
were at Burdwan University Medical Center, a place he called “worse
than a roadside toilet.” He and other government officials have tried to
rescue Burdwan by recommending new equipment and more hospital beds.
Dr. B. Biswas, 34, an assistant professor at the medical college who
works in the hospital’s newborn intensive care unit, explained that
sometimes he has no choice but to advise parents to make the trip to
Kolkata and visit B.C. Roy. “Our patient loads are impossibly high,” he
explained. “We don’t have the space or the manpower to treat everyone
here who needs our help.”
24-hour shifts,” Biswas said. “A few machines can’t help us double or
triple our manpower.” Biswas explained that the bulk of his patient load
comes from primary health centers that are supposed to function as a
first response in villages here but are often unequipped to meet that
One such place is Block Primary Health Center in Barsul, a 15-minute
drive from Burdwan, where there are only two doctors serving a
population of roughly 150,000 people. Electricity at the Block Primary
Health Center goes out every few hours. That would theoretically be a
problem for performing complex surgeries, but the center’s lone
operating room has been boarded up for several months, sitting empty and
abandoned, collecting dust. But electricity issues are a problem for
delivering babies, and according to the doctor on duty that day, 350
babies are born per year at Block.
The hallways and toilets in Block are filthy, and most of the metal
beds in the maternity room are slanted or broken. Many of the babies
born here arrive malnourished or premature, making them immediately
susceptible to disease. When such babies are born, if one of the two
rented ambulances in the area is available to take them, they are then
dispatched to Burdwan in the hope that they can be saved. If Burdwan
can’t help, the babies are eventually sent to Kolkata for a last-ditch
effort to save a life. Too often, those efforts fail.