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From the Field India

Operation Smile India Steps up to Help Hospitals Fight COVID-19: Q&A with Abhishek Sengupta

Operation Smile India Executive Director Abhishek Sengupta Photo: Lorenzo Monacelli.

Our promise of improving health and dignity during the COVID-19 pandemic endures. Once again, we’re providing surgery and in-person care while taking stringent measures to keep families safe. Hope is on the horizon. And we remain focused on what cleft care makes possible for children, helping them to better breathe, eat, speak and live with confidence. If you can, when you can, help us keep our promise to care for children and create hope for tomorrow.

Our local team in India has stood side by side to help local communities fight against devastating job losses, food shortages, lockdowns and more since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Through the commitment of our volunteers and staff, hundreds of care packages were distributed, weeks’ worth of food reached the tables of families and donated hygiene products protected children and vulnerable populations against the virus. Additionally, with our local team reshaping care delivery and implementing new safety protocols, surgeries resumed for waiting patients. 

“After the first wave, we were able to restart our centers in late 2020,” said Operation Smile India Executive Director Abhishek Sengupta. “The month of April was a hugely successful month for us. We provided surgery to over 170 patients.”

However, in recent months, another surge of challenges began unfolding in India. 

“The second wave of the pandemic has been brutal on India,” Abhishek said. “In terms of absolute number of new infections per day and number of deaths per day, the second wave has been devastating, much more severe and sudden than the first wave. Health systems were on the verge of a collapse with shortage of drugs and oxygen.”

To combat the massive shortage of oxygen in the country, Operation Smile donated 100 oxygen concentrators to hospitals in Durgapur, Raipur, Vijayawada, Mumbai and Srinagar. These oxygen concentrators are currently being used to save the lives of patients admitted into COVID-19 wards throughout seven hospitals in India today.

We caught up with Abhishek who provided an update on the situation in his country and how our local efforts have dramatically impacted the lives of patients and families. 

Local members of our team in India stand beside a collection of the oxygen concentrators Operation Smile donated to local hospitals during the second wave of COVID-19. Photo courtesy of Abhishek Sengupta.

Q: How is the current situation in India?

A: “The second wave of the pandemic has been brutal on India. In terms of absolute number of new infections per day and number of deaths per day, the second wave has been devastating, much more severe and sudden than the first wave. Health systems were on the verge of a collapse with shortage of drugs and oxygen. The government of India scrambled all resources to plug in the gap due to increased need for oxygen beds and intensive care unit beds. At some places, even military personal and doctors were deployed. Also, several armed forces hospitals have been opened up for the general public to address the sudden increase in demand for hospital beds.”

Q: How has India's second wave affected Operation Smile India's medical missions and care centers? 

A: “After the first wave, we were able to restart our centers in late 2020. We had just gotten into the groove, and the month of April was a hugely successful month for us. We provided surgery to over 170 patients in April. Unfortunately, we had to completely shut down two of our centers in May. We have a total of four year-round care centers. Durgapur and Mumbai have been shut down until the end of June. The Bangalore and Srinagar centers continue to operate, but under reduced capacity. This decision was taken keeping in mind the surge in number of new infections per day and regional level lockdowns imposed by the government. Hospitals were instructed to increase their capacity to treat patients with COVID-19. Thus a lot of resources, especially medical personnel, from our cleft centers were diverted to meet this demand. 

“We are currently watching the situation very carefully. We hope to have all centers up and running from July, but a lot will depend on how things progress with COVID-19.”

These oxygen concentrators were purchased by our team in India and are now being used to save lives in multiple hospitals throughout the country. Photo courtesy of Abhishek Sengupta.

Q: How have your teams been able to respond so far?

A: “Throughout these tough times – for us as well as for our patients and volunteers – we have continued to stay in touch with our patients. In spite of the lockdown, our teams have made home visits to deliver necessary food supplements and formulas to patients enrolled in our nutrition programs. We've also been in touch with patients whose speech therapy, orthodontic or dental appointments had to be pushed. We have ensured that there isn’t any inconvenience for patients and the ones who are on a treatment pathway to receive necessary advice and support virtually. 

“Given the massive shortage of oxygen in the country, Operation Smile has donated 100 oxygen concentrators to our partner hospitals in Durgapur, Raipur, Vijayawada, Mumbai and Srinagar. Purchasing oxygen concentrators in such a short time has been a challenge because of the sudden increase in demand and limited supply, but we took steps to ensure that they were purchased on time and delivered to partner hospitals in need. These 100 concentrators are being used in COVID-19 wards in seven different hospitals today and have been instrumental in saving lives.”

Q: What is the current situation for children and adults with cleft conditions who were scheduled for surgery?

A: “We have postponed all surgeries for now. We've been in touch with all patients and are providing necessary guidance and advise virtually. These patients will be prioritized for surgery as soon as it's safe for our centers reopen.”

Q: Do you have a personal message you'd like to send to supporters?

A: “These are difficult times, not only for the organization but also for each of us personally. Almost everyone on the Operation Smile India team has either had COVID-19 themselves or have had close family members who have suffered. Most people on the team have also lost loved ones in this pandemic. The last year and a half has been tiring. However, as a team and as an organization, we all remain committed.

“During the first wave, we stood by our partners and patients by providing food to more than 15,000 families. This time, we're supporting partner hospitals, patients and their families. In the future, we wish to ensure safe and prompt vaccination for our patients and their families. It’s important to understand that we wouldn't be able to do any of this without the help and support of our amazing donors and sponsors. In difficult times, such as these, it's generally the poor and marginalized who suffer the most, and we at Operation Smile India are committed to stand beside them. But to do this, we need the continued support of kind-hearted individuals and like-minded organizations. 

“While the second wave of the pandemic seems to be under control, the donations made by Operation Smile will continue to support hospitals and patients. These will also ensure that our partner hospitals are better prepared for any third wave of the pandemic. We hope that these tough times are behind us soon and that we can quickly reopen our centers and start providing clinical services. Patients are waiting.”

Help us to continue keeping our promise amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Your support today means we can help patients through these uncertain times and provide them with the care and surgery they deserve.

A mother and her child wait patiently at the shelter during a 2018 Operation Smile India surgical program in Durgapur. Photo: Jasmin Shah.

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