Where there’s a will, there’s a way: My journey setting up a Covid ward in India

Contributed by Saravanakumar Periyasamy of EO Oman, director of Zawawi Powertech Engineering. In 2019, he became the director of Frontier Lifeline Hospital in Chennai, India.

My journey begins

In 2019, I was sent to Chennai, India, as part of the team assigned to turn around a once prominent, now ailing, hospital brand in South India. Personally, transitioning from the oil, gas and energy industry to the healthcare realm alone was a significant adjustment. And then, in early 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic struck before I had fully acclimated to my new environment. 

The magnitude of the pandemic, both globally and personally, was unprecedented and beyond any scale of imagination. There wasn’t one economy or region that was immune to the ravages of Covid-19. 

While most citizens were advised to remain indoors to tame the virus spread, some of us―the frontline workers―had to answer the call of duty. And though I had not worked in the healthcare industry before, suddenly, I was a frontline worker in an essential job who had to show up in person to work. 

The first wave

Although the first wave of Covid was daunting, we would eventually learn it was mild compared with the gravity of the second wave. As the second wave hit, something inside me said, now that my family had invested in the healthcare industry, not playing our part in the pandemic wasn’t right (in terms of not having a designated Covid ward in our hospital to help to save lives). 

One year into the crisis, people had grown complacent and adopted a lethargic attitude―which gave birth to the second wave. By the time the second wave hit, the healthcare system was overstretched and overwhelmed.

Our hospital, Frontier Lifeline Hospital in Chennai, has a single specialty―cardiac care. Therefore, we didn’t have a designated ward where we could treat Covid patients. As a non-medical professional, I lacked many of the necessary skillsets to set one up. Even so, I resolved to make my contribution to the crisis by setting up Frontier Lifeline Hospital’s new Covid ward and ensuring its smooth operations.

Confronting new challenges

The most challenging part of the journey was convincing our cardiac-focused doctors and nurses to start treating Covid patients and to prepare them mentally for this challenge. The hospital hadn’t taken in Covid patients in the first wave because it was a single-specialty hospital.

Although I’ve read many books on crisis management, nothing compares to what I learned first-hand during the Covid crisis. With a combination of measures, including financial incentives, free treatment for those who got infected while on duty, and free treatment for any of their relatives who got infected, I succeeded in overcoming my first obstacle. I had to motivate various personnel across the hierarchy to get their buy-in. 

Once the doctors and nurses were ready to treat and we got Covid patients admitted, we realized that we were lacking proper equipment and number of nurses. I spent countless hours making phone calls to locate nurses with Covid-care experience so we would have enough nurses for the difficult times ahead. I also reached out frantically to suppliers, offering upfront payment for equipment we desperately needed, including ventilators, monitors, BiPAPs and CPAPs. With a stroke of luck, I secured the necessary supplies within a few days after becoming operational. 

One of the toughest aspects of working in healthcare is dealing with deaths in large numbers, and our hospital experienced many Covid deaths. I was personally present and involved, alongside another doctor—my brother—pacifying relatives of the deceased in the initial days of our Covid ward because mortality rates were very high. It’s a feeling that I have never experienced before as an entrepreneur. The scene was emotionally overwhelming. In times like these, you recognize the fragility of life and start thinking about your life’s purpose

We shall overcome

After we managed through the startup obstacles and put the proper protocols and processes in place, we received news that the entire city of Chennai was running out of oxygen. Hospitals were forewarned of this life-threatening shortage. When this news broke, I was mentally and physically exhausted from my efforts in establishing our Covid ward. My family and friends stepped up to give me the courage, support and helping hands to go that extra mile in dealing with this new situation. 

EO Chennai to the rescue!

Friends in the local EO Chennai chapter came to our rescue and shared vital connections with me in the nick of time—just as we were running out of oxygen. These connections proved invaluable, and supplied our hospital with a handful of oxygen cylinders, which gave our ward a two-day buffer in the event of not getting additional oxygen supplies. That was the turning point. With the oxygen cylinders EO Chennai helped supply, we saved hundreds of patients and lowered our ward’s mortality rate.

We were about a month into the second wave crisis at this time, and I was attuned to think about the worst of worst-case scenarios. As a result, I started exploring options for importing cryogenic liquid oxygen in bulk―which could help us run the hospital for months without external supplies. Fortunately, I found a supplier in Oman who agreed to supply us with liquid oxygen. We learned on the go; the time gap between ideation and implementation was almost zero. In the end, we didn’t import the liquid oxygen as the situation started to stabilize due to the strict lockdown measures then. But I had made plans and kept everything ready—including freight and logistics.

I want to thank the EO community from the bottom of my heart. Without you, I couldn’t have gotten through this most difficult of challenges!

When I think of my experience establishing a Covid ward in Chennai with little prior medical experience, I will always remember, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way!”

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