A community-led initiative ‘Breath of Life’ has since May end collected over Rs 3.5 crore to aid a region with a lack of proper healthcare. It is also a lesson in self-sufficiency and a model other hilly regions can replicate.

New Delhi: It takes a village to save a life. Or many villages. When the second wave left Manali and its surrounding villages gasping for air, there was a unique coming together of ordinary people, organisations, NGOs and businesses. All in an effort to prepare for the third wave so that people can breathe easy. A community-led initiative Breath of Life, has since May end collected over Rs 3.5 crore to aid a region with a lack of proper healthcare. It is also a lesson in self-sufficiency and a model other hilly regions can replicate. These residents said enough, and became accountable for their neighbours which is providence for what is looking like the uneasy beginnings of the third wave, even as Himachal Pradesh makes RTPCR tests mandatory. This hands-on-board community initiative started when Sailesh Dheer, Amitabh Sharma, Rajesh Khanna, a very proactive then SDM Raman Gharsanghi and Dr. Philip Alexander of Mission Hospital (among many others) individually witnessed the devastation caused by Covid 19 on their own families and those of people in their region in the second wave. Slowly, it gained momentum where many other stake holders joined hands to spruce up a heaving health infrastructure and prepare for what Covid has in store. Oxygen ready for the pandemic’s third wave even as tourists flock hill stations, and businesses welcome this new lease of life to the tourist-led economy of Himachal Pradesh. The abject lack of oxygen, ventilators, critical care and beds was bone chilling. The people of Manali decided to be the change as likeminded individuals came together. Seven panchayats and the city of Manali joined hands, ordinary folk, NGOs, businesses and the Rotary began raising money to address the lack of medical facilities. Standing tall were the residents of Manali, Shanag, Buruwa and Palchan, with Mission Hospital’s Dr. Philip Alexander leading the way. Today, these efforts have given the hills some breathing space to cope with an impending wave.

To put things into perspective – here what the region was equipped or ill-equipped with earlier – a critical case capacity of 2 ICU beds with two government ventilators today has 30-odd concentrators (10 litres Microtek) and 40 industrial cylinders, CPAP and BPAP machines, four state-of-the-art ventilators,a free oxygen bank, an oxygen generator being developed (from Germany) provided to Mission Hospital — a plant costing Rs 75 lakh with efforts from Rotary Manali and International Rotary. Groups like Crazy Mountain Goats added to the tally and so did others – 8 concentrators provided to Mission Hospital, N95 masks, oxy pulse meters, Covid protocol training, home delivery of oxygen cylinders or concentrators and increase in bed capacity at the Mission Hospital to 55 beds. A large caring and responsible bunch.
Even as the government had offered Rs 3,000 relief for Covid care which is yet to see the light of day, Dr. Phillip Alexander of Mission Hospital has taken the onus of giving the ordinary citizen Covid care.
“The initiative was successful as the entire community played a proactive part. We saw that at the peak (of the second wave), many were unwilling to assist each other, and the nearest oxygen bank was eight hours away, so it was a case of ‘Marta Kya Na Karta’ or survival at your own behest,” says Amitabh Sharma, Air Himalayas, who also supplied oxygen cylinders, and helms the initiative with great zeal.
For Shailesh Dheer, the initiative began with a concern for his aged parents, families, and ordinary folk. The grim reality of searching for oxygen cylinders or concentrators, hospital beds, ventilators slowly turned this effort into a living and breathing aid for its inhabitants. Instead of waiting for government intervention, Mission Hospital with the tireless Dr. Philip Alexander at the helm guided this drive. In all, a robust Rs 3.5 crore collected for Covid efforts throughout the upper and mid Valley in just 30 days to prepare for the worst to come.

“It was quite humbling to see how the whole community came forward, help came from everywhere. The problem in Covid is the oxygen requirement is very high, normally we use 5 type D cylinders in a day at 7,000 litres consumption. Before, we had two old ventilators, and did not have a single oxygen concentrator. In the second wave, the oxygen requirement went up from five cylinders to 20. Our vehicle travelled to Mandi twice in 24 hours which is three hours one way for oxygen which also was a problem. When help came in from all quarters, we began this effort. Even from as far as Ghana and Helping Hands UK, a local gurudwara, fruit growers, residents, people have come together,” says Dr. Alexander, a general surgeon and surgical gastroenterologist who along with his wife Anna and two other specialists form the core of Mission Hospital.
The doctor feels more prepared for the third wave but is categoric, “All this will work provided the patient comes early, they must allow us to get into the battle early, or else the horse has bolted.”
The importance of patients monitoring themselves, not shrinking from testing and asking for help at the appropriate time is key to preparing after ramping up the infrastructure. The doctor speaks of the stigma prevalent in the villages – many don’t want to admit they have Covid, are reluctant to get tested or go to a hospital thus need to educated through awareness – which is also being done by responsible citizens. “This has changed the mindset of the average village dweller immensely, and we can see it on the ground,” says Rajesh Khanna, a hospitality entrepreneur.

In a region where getting home care medical help is non-existent, the initiative has also for the first time given home care a shot in the arm – concentrators, N95 masks, PPE kits, thermometers and oxygensaturation meters are available for homes, that Dheer and Dr. Philip have been tirelessly working on. “We also provide a kit for home care – six oxygen concentrators for the upper villages of Shanag, Buruwa, Palchan under which many satellite villages like Solang, Majal Koti and others come. Training has been imparted with the help of Dr. Phillip, where Anganwadi workers and panchayat heads were taught Covid protocols – wearing PPE kits, how to replace cylindersand concentrators, sanitise, reuse them. The idea is that people can get help earlier, and thus saving many lives,” says Amitabh. Rajesh Khanna provided antigen tests and spreading the culture of testing, says, “Everyone took the onus to help out to prepare for the third wave. Our remote belt never gets priority thus through crown funding and donations from far and wide this was facilitated which is very critical.”
The initiative could be a clarion call to other hill towns with abject medical facilities, to be self-reliant during a health emergency, however even the best of infrastructure cannot prepare for a devastating wave, Dr Alexander cautions.
“Earlier, we could accommodate only 25 to 30 patients, which is now 55 bed strong critical care, divided into Covid and general medical care,” says Dr. Philip who adds, “If deluged with patients, we cannot manage, but that kind of infrastructure is not feasible anywhere at all. If there is a system of intelligent triage, patients can be classified into mild, moderate and serious disease, and on a community level if there is an organisation, they will able to triage the patients to conserve beds for moderate patients, and send the mild home with necessary medical care and also isolate them successfully within the home environment.”
A helicopter service to take one during a medical emergency (at a cost), a helpline that citizens can use to get oxygen, the hills, a tough terrain to manoeuvre in ordinary times is prepared, hoping that the worst does not come to pass.