The Gorakhpur Hospital Tragedy: The doctor finally spills the beans in the book
The Gorakhpur Hospital Tragedy is Kafeel Khan’s first-hand chronicle of the events of that fateful night in August 2017 and the gut-wrenching turmoil that followed. Here is an excerpts from the book
The Gorakhpur Hospital Tragedy is Kafeel Khan’s first-hand chronicle of the events of that fateful night in August 2017 and the gut-wrenching turmoil that followed – a suspension without end, an eight-month-long incarceration and a relentless fight for justice in the face of extreme apathy and persecution.
Dr Kafeel Khan was born in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh. After completing his MBBS and MD in Paediatrics from Kasturba Medical College, Manipal, in Karnataka, he worked as an assistant professor at the Sikkim Manipal Institute of Medical Sciences in Gangtok, before joining the Baba Raghav Das Medical College, Gorakhpur, as a lecturer.
Since his suspension from the BRD Medical College’s Nehru Hospital after the medical crisis of August 2017 and subsequent release from Gorakhpur Jail, Khan, along with his team and the help of ordinary citizens, has been working under the banner of Dr Kafeel Khan Mission Smile Foundation. He has also started a Health for All campaign to demand the Right to Healthcare legislation and has launched a new initiative named Doctors on Road to provide healthcare services to patients in the Indian hinterlands.
In January 2020, Khan was arrested again and charged under the National Security Act (NSA) for his allegedly inflammatory speech at the Aligarh Muslim University; he subsequently spent seven months in prison. On 1 September 1, 2020, all the charges under the NSA were dropped by the Allahabad High Court. Khan was terminated from service on 9 November 2021 by the BRD Medical College, and as of December 2021, cases against him are being pursued in lower courts even though the enquiries conducted by the state and central governments have not found any evidence of medical negligence or corruption against him.
Here is a small excerpt from his book 'The Gorakhpur Hospital Tragedy: A Doctor’s Memoir of a Deadly Medical Crisis' in which he recalls the chain of events on the fateful day in 2017 that led to the unending trauma he has been facing since then:
‘We are at pain in observing that ... non-supplying of oxygen to the hospitals is a criminal act and not less than a genocide by those who have been entrusted the task to ensure continuous procurement and supply chain of the liquid medical oxygen.’
– From an order passed by Justices Siddhartha Varma and Ajit Kumar of the Allahabad High Court on 4 May 2021In August 2017, following the deaths of more than sixty infants at the state-run Baba Raghav Das Medical College in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, after the hospital’s medical oxygen ran out, I was suspended and jailed for more than eight months. The authorities denied that the hospital’s oxygen supply had been stopped, failed to identify the real culprits and instead blamed me for the fatalities. Between 10 and 12 August, I worked round the clock, trying to figure out a way to restore the supply of life-giving oxygen to the infants and children admitted in the wards and the intensive care unit of the hospital’s Department of Paediatrics. What happened over the course of those two to three days would soon lead to a life-and-death struggle of my own: a fight for my liberty, to remain in the profession of healing and a battle to live and work in the place where I was born – Gorakhpur, the home of my ancestors.
Little did I know at the time that some years after qualifying as a doctor and embarking on my medical profession, I would be forced to newly educate myself through bitter lessons learnt by witnessing negligence and dereliction of duty, corruption and vicious prosecution. It was only after navigating a series of crises in the past four years that I could understand why I had to go through this incredible ordeal. I was meant to become more conscious and aware – for my own sake and that of society.This book documents the arduous journey I was compelled to undertake after the events of August 2017, which upturned my life forever.
Hero to Villain
On the morning of 13 August, my phone started ringing at around 7 a.m.
Yet to recover from the trauma and exertion of the past forty-eight hours, I wondered, ‘What now?’
My early morning caller was the HOD, Dr Mahima Mittal. ‘Come to the medical college immediately,’ she said. ‘The chief minister and the union health minister are visiting today.’
My sleeping daughter was still in my arms and my wife was also in a deep slumber. I kissed both their foreheads and started getting ready. Not wanting to wake them up, I bathed in a hurry, dressed in formal attire and walked downstairs to find my mother awake. We had tea and breakfast together after she insisted that I have some bread and butter, which I gulped down before leaving for the hospital.
As I was walking out of the house, my brother Adeel, who was also awake and reading the newspaper, showed me the headlines. ‘Deaths of 11 More Children’ was the main news, along with the fact that the liquid oxygen supply had been resumed. The UP health minister’s statement that ‘August me har saal bachche marte hai’ had been highlighted by every reporter. And the opposition parties were now baying for blood.
I glanced hurriedly at the stories and found that many were also about me and how I had tried to save the children. I was being called a ‘hero’, a masiha (rescuer), a farishta (angel). They had also quoted people present at the scene.
‘While other doctors gave up hope, Dr Khan managed the situation well by arranging oxygen cylinders from private nursing homes. He saved many lives by his efforts and presence of mind,’ said Gaurav Tripathi, an eyewitness.
Another headline was, ‘At least 63 kids have died in Gorakhpur hospital in 5 days’. ‘[Khan] collected as many as 12 oxygen cylinders. The child specialist made four trips to the hospital to ferry these cylinders for children admitted in his ward.’
Srawan Shukla, a correspondent of DNA India, wrote that ‘Even as the death of 36 children in Uttar Pradesh’s Gorakhpur hospital once again exposed government hospitals’ dismal condition and the authorities’ colossal apathy, a child specialist at the BRD Medical College where these deaths took place managed to restore people’s faith in humanity. Dr Kafeel Khan did exemplary work on the fateful night of August 10 and 11, saving many lives that would otherwise have been lost.’
An article appeared in the Hindustan Times, which reported the following:
Crises brings out the best in some people. At a time when all hell broke loose in Baba Raghav Das (BRD) Medical College following alleged disruption of oxygen supply, one man – Dr Kafil Ahmed – answered the call of duty ...
For several hours, Dr Kafil became a one-man army for the junior doctors and hospital staff ...
Only one, Mayur Gases, agreed to give them the cylinders, provided that the down payment was made strictly in cash.
The Gorakhpur hospital tragedy
With no time to lose, Dr Kafil took out his ATM card and sent one of his office staff to get the cash from the nearest teller machine ...
Even though there was little time to read anything in too much detail, I felt pleased. I had left home in good spirits, after saying bye to my mother, brother and wife. On the way to work, I began to receive many calls of congratulations, as well as calls from the college asking me to reach quickly.
‘How much faster can I go?’ I wondered. ‘I cannot possibly fly!’
I reached the campus by 8:30 a.m. and found that the main gate was closed, and entry was being allowed only to those with ID cards. Hundreds of reporters and thousands of cops swarmed the premises. Many local leaders from the BJP were inside the premises as well as outside, opposition party leaders were shouting slogans asking for the resignation of the chief minister and the health minister. Now all the print and electronic channels were reporting that the supply of oxygen had been stopped by the supplier due to the non-payment of bills.
I went to the wards after showing my ID, glad that the police posted for checking were treating me with great respect. Reporters ran up to me when I got out of the car, but I did not say a word to them. I could hear hundreds of cameras clicking my photos as I walked. I did my rounds, instructed the nurses to change the bedsheets, checked the ventilator tubing and changed the setting according to the ABG. The sweepers were busy cleaning all the wards.
A rehearsal was conducted and one of the visiting politicians chalked out the questions J. P. Nadda could ask the parents and how they should be answered. A few parents who had been spotted talking about the oxygen shortage were shifted to ward 6, so that they would not be able to meet the CM. The commissioner, SDM, CMO,
CMS, additional director of health, DGME and others were present, and multiple meetings took place among the HOD, DGME and SIC. Now that the principal had been suspended, who was going to bear the brunt of the blame? That was the question on all the staffers’ minds.
That day, one of the nurses arrived on duty to find only one child in each bed of the PICU. She arranged her notes and went into the first cubicle. She noted the new, tautly stretched sheets, and the child’s neatly combed hair on the clean pillow. Her own son had been running a fever, but there was no possibility of calling in with a request for leave on a day when the hospital was under scrutiny by the high and mighty.
Compared to a normal day on the campus, this was a completely different scene. The dumper truck from the Nagar Nigam had already arrived to take out all the garbage. Many hospital sweepers, ward boys and nurses were sent as reinforcements to the paediatrics ward. In the pharmacy, all the medicines were available, and instructions had been given to everyone that if the CM asked about the availability of medicines, they should say that all the medicines have always been freely available. Parents and other visitors who had been identified as a nuisance were asked to leave the premises.
It had been decided that the CM would address the media in an auditorium inside the college building, after completing his round of ward 100. I was told to remain in my cabin and to keep away from the CM, as only the HOD would show him around.
I heard from others that when the CM finally arrived, chaos ensued. The moment he and J. P. Nadda got out of their SUV, reporters jumped at them with their mikes. The CM ignored them and walked towards ward 100, but the reporters continued to run behind them. As soon as the CM and those accompanying him had entered, the doors were shut by the security personnel. Only the CM, J. P. Nadda, Rajya Sabha member Shiv Pratap Shukla, the commissioner, the DM and the DGME were to be allowed inside. But the reporters were hell-bent on following them in. Amidst this chaos, they broke the glass door of the PICU entrance.
The CM turned back and looked at the reporters. First, he shouted at them, then he started lamenting, saying something to this effect: ‘For the past thirty years I have been fighting for encephalitis patients, and you are blaming me! It’s a conspiracy. I will explain everything to you. Dhair rakhiye, sabko milwaoonga, parents se, patient dikhaoonga. Pehle hame dekh lene dein (Please be patient. I will let you meet patients and parents, both. But first, let me see them).’
The DM and the assembled cops took this as a cue to force everyone out. The chief minister entered the first cubicle and talked to the first patient.
‘Kahan se hain? (Where are you from?) Kab admission hua tha? (When were you admitted?) Koi dikkat toh nahin? (Hope you haven’t had any trouble?) Medicine mil jati hai? (Do you get your medicines here?) Dus ki raat ko kya hua tha? (What happened on the night of the 10th?) Oxygen ki kami toh nahin? (Was there any shortage of oxygen?)’
Then he went to another bed and asked the same set of questions. After talking to three patients, he turned to J. P. Nadda and said, ‘See, these patients have been here for the past week. Agar oxygen ki kami hoti to ye sab bhi mar jate, na? (If there had been a shortage of oxygen, then these patients would have also died, isn’t it?)’ Nadda nodded.
He then turned to the HOD and asked out of the blue, ‘Dr Kafeel kaun hai? (Who is Dr Kafeel?’)’
I was in another cabin, but I heard the question and, a moment later, a junior doctor appeared, telling me that the HOD was calling for me.
Unsuspecting of what was to come, I entered the cubicle where the VIPs stood and greeted everyone. I had imagined that I would receive a pat on the back, but instead I was met with pin-drop silence. Everyone simply stared at me.
The chief minister stared at me, ignoring my greeting. He was fuming, his face was flushed and angry.
‘Toh tu Dr Kafeel hai? (So you are Dr Kafeel?)’
‘Tu ne cylinders ka arrangement kiya tha? (You had
arranged for the cylinders?)’
‘Yes, sir,’ I acknowledged. I was disturbed by the way he was addressing me with the pronoun ‘tu’, indicating disrespect. I could tell something was not right.
The CM then turned to a consultant and asked, ‘Ye chaar–paanch cylinders se kitni zindagi bacha li? (How many lives did he save with these four or five cylinders?)’
No one answered his question.
Inside my head, a voice was screaming, ‘Not four or five, we arranged 500 cylinders in fifty-four hours!’ But I did not say anything out loud.
‘Toh tu sochta hai cylinders la ke tu hero ban jayega? (So, you think by getting cylinders you are going to become some kind of hero?)’ he asked. I did not know what I could possibly say to this, so I just stood silently.
‘Dekhta hoon tujhe ... (I will see it).’
Those four sentences are seared in my memory forever because they would very soon turn my life upside down, even though I did not realize it at the time.
And that was it. Somebody put a hand on my shoulder as I was ushered out of the cubicle and instructed to wait in the wards. I felt anxious, horrified, clueless. What was happening and why was I being treated in this manner? Everyone was looking at me sympathetically, but no one came to talk to me. A senior nurse handed me a glass of water. I drank it. I had started sweating, my legs were shaking, I was dumbstruck and racking my brain for the cause of the CM’s odd line of questioning, but I could find none.
The CM emerged from the cubicle, but he ignored me.
Next, they went to ward 12. I went with them, but the HOD and Dr Sharma were in charge. I was now being sidelined. After finishing their rounds, they sat in the office of ward 100. The CM, J. P. Nadda and Shiv Pratap Shukla sat, while everyone else stood around them. I was told to wait outside. After fifteen or so minutes, I was called back in.
‘So you informed people from the media that the oxygen had been exhausted?’ the CM asked me.
‘No, sir! They were already at the gates.’
The DM turned to me and told me to keep quiet.
‘Who is Dr Satish?’ the CM asked. ‘Call him. How
come he was not present without taking leave?’
Someone called his number and asked Dr Satish to come to the hospital immediately. Meanwhile, the CM said, ‘First, remove Dr Kafeel from the post of superintendent of ward no 100.’
What! I wanted to scream loudly, ‘I am not the superintendent of ward no 100!’ But the words would not come out of my mouth.
Now they were discussing who would be the new principal. Dr Reena Srivastava, the head of the OB-GYN department, had already refused to take up the responsibility. Someone recommended Dr K. P. Kushwaha, the retired principal. The CM wanted to speak to him, and when Dr Kushwaha picked up, he asked cordially, ‘How are you?’
Then the CM asked him, ‘Will you take up the responsibility of the principal’s post once again?’
We could glean that Dr Kushwaha had agreed since the CM turned to the others and said: ‘He is the right person for this job.’
By this time, Dr Satish had arrived, but the CM had clearly forgotten that he had called for him. Somebody pushed him in front, saying, ‘Sir, Dr Satish has arrived.’
‘Why did you go on leave without informing anyone when there was a crisis?’ he was asked.
‘Sir, I had to attend my child’s—’
‘Shut up! And why was the AC not working?’ Whatever he was about to say remained unsaid, because the DM and the others asked him not to speak and pushed him to the back of the group.
The CM told the HOD to clean up the mess. ‘I am going to monitor everything,’ he warned.
Then I was told to leave and go wait in a different room.
When the CM and the other VIPs came out, the reporters were asked to go and talk to the parents.
Finally, the CM addressed the media in the college auditorium. All the while, the then Union health minister JP Nadda did not utter a single word.
On stage, the CM told the reporters that not a single death had taken place due to a shortage of oxygen – they were caused by ‘Japanese encephalitis and insanitary conditions. He said that the crisis was a conspiracy to defame him and his government. He warned the conspirators, saying, ‘Itni kadhor karyawahi Pradesh sarkar karegi ki woh manak banegi logon ke anushashan mein rehke karya karne ke bare mein (The state will take take such strict action that it will become a marker for how to work within the discipline).’
The CM then ordered another inquiry committee, headed by the chief secretary, which was supposed to submit its report within a week, by 20 August 2017.
Affirming that we were living in a post-truth age, the government seemed to first want to bury the whole incident by making light of it: ‘There are deaths every year in August.’ Then they went into denial mode and, when it became apparent that the number of deaths and the scale of the tragedy could no longer be denied, it appeared that rumor-mongers, spin doctors, and trolls had spun into action. Out of nowhere, they all came together to sponsor a smear campaign against me on social media, which was quickly picked up by the electronic media without any attempt to verify the facts.
Moments later I got a call at work from my brother who informed me that several reporters had arrived at my wife’s hospital.
‘A crowd has gathered and is throwing bricks and shouting slogans,’ he said. ‘They have reached my office as well.’ A few minutes after this mob attack, the crowd began looting all the electronics from my brother’s showroom – TVs, refrigerators, washing machines, inverter batteries and other valuables.
‘We had to run to save our lives,’ my brother told me.
He also said that false stories about me were circulating on social media. Some claimed that I stole oxygen cylinders for a clinic, others insinuated that I was in cahoots with the principal’s wife or that I was related to gangsters and politicians.
I was stunned by the range of completely baseless accusations and theories. By the afternoon, the same things had started playing on TV as well.
Anchors from big media houses based in Delhi and Mumbai did not come to Gorakhpur to find out about the facts of the story. They picked up the story from social media and suddenly I was made out to be the HOD of Paediatrics, the vice-principal, and the superintendent all at once. It was as if I was Superman, running the whole medical college alone! On the TV screens, they began shouting and screaming: ‘Gorakhpur ke 70 bachho ka kaatil kaun (who is the murderer of the 70 children from Gorakhpur)?’
Two main narratives were emerging from the crisis that had gripped the BRD Medical College on the night of 10–11 August. First, the deaths due to the oxygen shortage, which had already captured the attention of the public. The other was the corruption and the alleged commission deals in connection with the payments at the college.
But the CM’s visit and press conference had changed the entire narrative. The discussion had shifted from the deaths of the children to those who were to be made scapegoats. One name which consistently came up throughout the incident was my own, momentarily put on a pedestal, and then labeled as the villain of the entire episode.
The transformation from hero to villain takes place very quickly in the public eye, as I soon found out.
After the CM had left the wards, the nurses, junior residents and ward boys came to me and said, ‘We are with you, sir. We have seen you working. If anything happens to you, we will go on strike.’
‘No, please don’t. If you go on strike, what will happen to the children admitted in the wards?’ I told them. ‘Please go do your work. Nothing will happen to me. God is watching – He sees everything.’
One of the parents recounted later to a reporter that ‘The doctors called in their parents and asked them to quietly take away the bodies from the rear door of the ward as the CM was holding a meeting. The ward boy wrapped the bodies in bed sheets and told the attendants to move out without making any noise. The medical officers did not want any nuisance in the CM’s presence.’ It seemed that the whole management of the medical college was under the DM and the SSP, and the hospital authorities were just following orders. Masks, shoe covers, caps, gloves, trays – everything looked new and sterilized.
After the CM returned to Lucknow, I was told to go home using a different exit and to not talk to the media or anyone else.
I heard that the CM was very angry and upset but was told that I could come back to the hospital again in a few days.
‘But why is this my fault?’ I asked the HOD of Medicine, who was standing next to me.
‘Don’t worry, he said. ‘It’s just that right now there is so much media pressure. When things settle down, no one will remember.’ But I was unconvinced.
‘What about the kids who died?’ I asked. ‘Their parents will not be able to forget so fast.’
‘Don’t focus on that,’ was his advice. ‘You saved so many lives – that’s the important thing. Leave the city for a few days – it will be better for you.’
‘I am going to Lucknow anyway, as my mother and brother are going for hajj, and their flight, which is on the 16th, leaves from Lucknow,’ I told him. He looked relieved. ‘Good – you should leave today itself.’
I had no idea then why he was doing all this. It seemed to me he was doing it to save his wife. She was, in fact, the HOD of Paediatrics and had not been questioned about anything. Neither had he faced any interrogation about the eighteen deaths that had taken place on the intervening night of 10–11 August in the ICU of the medicine ward. Between him and the DM, the media blindly believed whatever version was fed to them about the deaths.
This was how the narrative changed so abruptly. I still remember how on 11 and 12 August everyone was asking:
Why was there an oxygen shortage?
Why was the payment not made?
Why had so many children died?
Why did the health minister make that insensitive
The CM and HM should resign, they had said. They
had acknowledged that I had helped save lives.
But now only one thing was being repeated everywhere:
Dr Kafeel Khan was a murderer.
When the opposition parties and a few Muslim leaders praised me, it made matters worse, painting the incident in communal colours. It became a hot topic across the country as people began dividing themselves on the basis of religion. To some people, it seemed as if my career had reached a dead end; others described it as a tragic nightmare.
When I had gone rushing to get oxygen cylinders that fateful night, I swear to Allah that I never stopped to wonder which of my patients were Hindu and who among them were Muslims, who belonged to which caste, who was poor or rich.
I am a doctor. Such thoughts have never occurred to me in my entire professional career, or ever, for that matter, because in my family we were always taught to respect every religion. For me religion is spirituality, humanity and belief in a higher power. I believe in Allah and consider it my personal choice. I also respect all religions and people, irrespective of their beliefs.
Is heroism today not earned by one’s actions or karma, but bestowed and denied on the basis of someone else’s beliefs?
When I went home that day, I found my whole family there. My brothers had closed their showroom, my wife had shut down her hospital, and everyone was so scared that no one was talking to anyone. My brothers were trying to contact the CM through some people, but he refused to talk.
Reporters were calling me, but I stayed quiet. Everyone was giving me the same advice: Just don’t react for some time, and everything will be okay.
My little Zab, who always brought me so much happiness, was climbing all over me, and I was trying to be my cheerful self with her.
I tried not to think about what had happened. But the moment we switched on the news, or someone logged into social media, there was so much hate that it made me feel ill. I was still wondering what had gone wrong. I had joined BRD as a permanent employee only on 8 August 2016, just a year back, and was still serving my probation. Then how could anyone believe I was the superintendent, or vice principal, or the HOD for crying out loud?
There was another story accusing me of stealing cylinders, which was completely made up. During normal operations, oxygen is supplied to a large central tank from where it is supplied through pipes to the rest of the hospital for patients. Once the liquid oxygen ran out, we got the cylinders refilled during the emergency. The fabrication was similar to saying someone had stolen your neighborhood’s water tank without anyone noticing. I would have laughed if it had not made me cry instead.
But what I still did not know was how the organized fake news machinery, which was spreading rumors on social media, was going to affect my life in ways much worse than if people had just believed the lies about me. Hate news and media trials would soon put me behind bars, deprive me of the ability to practise my profession, and rob me of my liberty."