It was midnight on April 16 in New Delhi, and Sujata Hingorani was desperately trying to find her father a hospital bed.
His oxygen levels had dropped that evening. Doctors said he needed to be hospitalized immediately.
She went to seven hospitals across the city, updating her sister, Supriya Das, who was waiting at home with the ambulance.
Finally at 5 a.m. she found an open bed at Lok Nayak Jai Prakash Narayan Hospital, a government facility in the city’s center. Staff there gave Malay Kumar Chatterjee, 82, a rapid test for the coronavirus. It was positive.
“It took them hours to prepare admission paperwork,” she said in an interview with The Washington Post.
“He was whisked [sic] to a 'covid isolation’ facility where no visitor could enter..... sometimes 5patients were taken together on one stretcher,” she later posted on Twitter.
An urban designer and architect, Sujata often takes short videos to capture the emotions of a space. “Little did I know that I would be using these to document my parents’ plight,” she said.
About three weeks earlier, her father and mother had received their first dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, known in India as Covishield.
Sujata and Supriya’s ordeal has become horrifyingly ordinary in India. The country has recorded more than 250,000 deaths and over 23.3 million cases as it buckles under an unexpected second wave of the pandemic. Experts say the toll is probably higher: Many hospitals are full; crematoriums and graveyards are backlogged.
Finding adequate care, in this city of 21 million, became nearly impossible.
LEFT: Sujata Hingorani lost both of her parents after they contracted the coronavirus in New Delhi. (Rebecca Conway for The Washington Post) RIGHT: Supriya Chatterjee Das sits on her mother's favorite chair at their home in New Delhi. (Rebecca Conway for The Washington Post)
Two days after he was admitted, the family tried calling their father. There was no answer. They kept trying.
At around 2:15 p.m. another patient picked up.
“That person said that my dad had been dead since the last 2 hours, and no doctors were there to check,” Sujata said.
Losing him made her feel helpless and angry.
“I had a guilty feeling in the pit of my stomach that I could not put him in a better facility … where he could have been better taken care of.” In the end, she said, “I was left with no other choice.”
That evening, she went to collect his body at the morgue, but it had already closed; she had to wait until the next day.
Sujata had her last conversation with her father the day before.
“He said the atmosphere is very depressing here … and he had to go to the loo on his own many times,” she said.
Before he got sick, her father would phone her every afternoon, calling her nicknames, versions of which she now uses on her own children.
“I was his darling,” she said. “I miss those afternoon chats.”
It was Supriya who broke the news to their mother. She was stunned.
“I spoke with him in the morning, and he had asked me to pack things for the hospital,” her mother said. “What happened?”
When her mother said she couldn’t sleep alone that night, Supriya slept with her.
The next morning, Sujata went back to the morgue.
She waited for hours.
That afternoon she was finally able to take her father’s body to Nigambodh crematorium.
She waited another five hours as many others cremated their loved ones.
“The assembly line of cremations,” Sujata tweeted, “was in full swing.”
About 900 pounds of wood were required for each body, she said.
“I did whatever I could in my capacity,” she added. “It was all new for me.”
She cremated her father, without any other family there, during a cursory service at dark.
Sujata barely had time to mourn. While she was at the crematorium, her mother’s oxygen levels were dropping.
Sujata stayed in close touch with Supriya, as she checked their mother, Indira Chatterjee, into VIMHANS hospital.
The family wanted a private hospital, after their experience with their father at a government-run facility.
Indira, 72, tested positive for the virus, and a chest scan indicated she had mild pneumonia.
In the hospital, as Indira’s oxygen levels continued to fluctuate, a doctor prescribed remdesivir, an antiviral drug that helps treat covid-19.
The medication was not easily available in the hospital or nearby pharmacies.
Sujata found only one shop in the southern part of the city selling the drug at a reasonable price. But to secure it, she needed a government-stamped prescription, which she did not have.
“Some people had started hoarding them,” selling each vial for over $270, she said. “It’s like, create a shortage and then profit from it.”
Finally with help from relatives, they were able to get six vials. But there were times when no one was available to administer the medication. Sujata updated her uncle on the situation.
For several days, the hospital promised that her mom would get a bed in intensive care so she could get the oxygen she needed.
But Indira remained in the emergency room.
The family next tried to get Indira a transfusion of plasma from a survivor of covid-19.
It was up to them to find the unproven therapy. They could get the convalescent plasma for their mom’s blood type only if they could replace it — by finding a survivor whose plasma could be used to treat another patient.
The search for a donor began.
For two days they sent pleas for help on WhatsApp. The one donor they found was rejected for having low hemoglobin levels.
They found another donor and went to a plasma bank for testing. They waited for clearance. The plasma wouldn’t be available until the next day.
“It was a roller-coaster ride,” Sujata said. “We were visiting the hospital morning, afternoon and evening.”
When she wasn’t by her mother’s side, she would check in on her with someone who was.
By noon, they had picked up the plasma and rushed to Indira. It was too late.
“That day for the first time, she was unconscious,” Sujata said. Her fingers had turned blue.
She died in the afternoon, as medical workers were trying to intubate her.
“She would have definitely pulled through if she had been given enough oxygen that she needed at that particular time,” Sujata said. Nothing had worked.
The family cremated their mother the next day, after facing the same backlogs and wait times they had experienced with their father just nine days earlier.
“Though [I] was amazed at her courage,” Sujata later wrote of her mother on Facebook, “I could only helplessly watch, while she fought on … on her own.”
She shared her pain and anger with the world over Twitter.
“We had so much to do together,” Supriya wrote three days later, remembering her mom on her daughter’s seventh birthday. “Who will [I] have my red wine with now. … Who will I order the fav chicken roll for. … Who will I order her fav Chinese for. … Who will buy me bed sheets every bday and anniversary. Who will repeat the same thing 10 days [in a row] and irritate me …
“My companion my best friend … My anchor.”