For the first time in the premier medical institution's history, emergency and OT services were completely shut down at Delhi's AIIMS on Friday as nurses went on a mass casual leave to press for increased allowances in the Seventh Pay Commission.
Only around 400 senior staffers out of 5,400 nurses at the hospital reported for duty as hundreds of critically-ill patients were denied admission in view of the staff crunch.
All planned surgeries and minor procedures had to be cancelled, officials said. More than 200 surgeries take place at the institute daily. "On Friday, only emergency cases could be taken up for surgery. We sought the help of senior paramedical staff and students for that," a senior doctor, who did not want to be named, told The Times of India.
Friday's shutdown left many in tears. ''My uncle's condition is critical. But the guards are not allowing us to take him to the casualty ward. Where do we go now?" asked Nutan Verma, who had come from Tahirpur in East Delhi.
Not a single patient was admitted to the casualty sections of AIIMS and its trauma centre. AIIMS's main casualty gets around 450 patients daily, many of them emergency cases requiring immediate medical attention.
Only those who got admission on Thursday were being treated by doctors. TOI found that the hospital staff utilised the opportunity to clean the main casualty.
At the trauma centre, which is the country's apex centre for emergency services and receives around 150 trauma patients daily, security guards had been deployed to tell patients to go elsewhere.
"We cannot let anyone inside. There are no nurses or doctors available due to strike," they told attendants who came crying for help.
Senior doctors said while the nurses' demand may be legitimate, their mode of protest was inhuman."There have been similar protests in the past but emergency services were not allowed to be disrupted in this manner. It involves critically-ill patients who may die due to little negligence," said a doctor. The doctor also slammed the administration for failing to make alternative arrangements.
"There is precedence of nurses being called from other hospitals or the army to continue emergency services. They did nothing of the sort this time," the doctor added.
AIIMS administration claimed that they had tried to persuade the nurses not go on mass leave.
"We were left with no option but to restrict emergency admission due to unavailability of nurses. Such action on their behalf has undermined the interest of the patients," Dr Balram Airan, acting director of the institute, said.
The nurses, he said, joined work from 5pm on Friday and have given an assurance that they would not resort to such action again following the institute's decision to forward their demands to the health ministry.
"We have also agreed to the other demands of the nurses' union, including the change of nomenclature from staff nurse to nursing officer as well as their demands for study leave," Dr Airan added.