As the United States has grappled with the impacts of the coronavirus and debated over the best plans moving forward, every other country around the world has struggled with the same challenges.
In India, hospital assistants, known there as ward boys, are usually at the bottom of the hospital food chain. They don’t have any professional medical training, so they are used as assistants to doctors and nurses. During COVID-19, however, ward boys have taken on crucial responsibilities in an effort to help patients and families navigate the overwhelmed medical system.
Deep Chand’s Story Represents Ward Boys Throughout India
BBC News reporter Vikas Pandey published an article in early August describing a distraught family member of a coronavirus patient standing outside of the COVID-19 ward in a hospital in Delhi, India’s capital.
“The man was desperately trying to speak to a doctor or nurse to find out about the condition of his relative who was a patient in the ward,” Pandey wrote. “So Deep Chand, who worked as a ward boy- or assistant- walked up to the man and asked if he could help.”
The man, it turns out, was Pandey himself. Pandey’s brother-in-law had been on a ventilator for three days, and his family hadn’t been updated on his condition that day.
Deep Chand was wearing personal protective equipment, so Pandey mistook him as a doctor and threw a “volley of questions” as the 28-year-old assistant. Despite Pandey’s panic, Chand responded calmly and gave Pandey as much information as he could.
“I will never forget my reassuring interaction with Deep Chand because it’s just what I needed to hear while I waited for an hour outside the ward, anxious and scared. I could hear the sounds of the machines, patients yelling in pain and doctors and nurses shouting instructions at each other,” Pandey wrote.
Deep Chand became a source of comfort and stability for Pandey’s family as they spent days at home or in the hospital wing waiting for news of their loved one.
In normal circumstances, the responsibilities performed by Chand and other ward boys are considered “basic”. They serve food, wheel patients across the hospital for tests, collect testing samples, and keep patients company when needed. Those same responsibilities have become critical during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Most hospitals were overrun, including the one where my brother-in-law was admitted. In that chaos, ward boys like Deep Chand became messengers for dozens of families like ours,” Pandey described. “I would often see them consoling families, supporting them, and taking messages to those patients who were too ill to even talk on the phone.”
Pandey got back in touch with Chand a month after his brother-in-law’s recovery and asked Chand about his experiences in the hospital ward. Chand expressed sadness for the pain of the families at the hospital, but acknowledges there was little that the doctors or nurses could do to improve communication with the tools and resources they had.
“They were so busy, they somehow managed to speak to the families of serious patients once a day. It’s nobody’s fault – none of us were prepared for this kind of rush,” he said. So Chand and his fellow ward boys around India did as much as they could to fill that communication gap.
“Ward boys are an important part of any ICU unit,” said Dr Sushila Kataria, the director of intensive care at Medanta Hospital. “They watch our backs, they deal with discarded PPE kits and contagious samples. No doctor can work without their help,” she explained. “They are also heroes in this fight like doctors and nurses.”