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Did noted scientist Lalji Singh die because of medical negligence at Varanasi airport?

M Somasekhar Ashwini Phadnis Hyderabad/ New Delhi | Updated on January 09, 2018

Did lack of basic emergency medical care at the international airport in Varanasi lead to the tragic death of one of India’s topmost scientists, Lalji Singh, hailed as the pioneer of DNA fingerprinting technology?

The finger of suspicion points strongly in that direction, going by the narration of Abhishek Singh, son of the 70-year-old scientist, of what happened on that fateful Sunday evening (December 10) at the Lal Bahadur Shastri International Airport, which falls in the Parliamentary constituency of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

For an agonising two hours, Lalji Singh, a Padma Sri awardee, could not get timely oxygen, minimum medical help, not even an ambulance to rush him to a good hospital. Neither the airport authorities nor IndiGo Airlines, whose flight to Hyderabad via Delhi Lalji was to take, extended enough support, he alleged.

Finally, with no help forthcoming, his 45-year-old nephew, Arun Kumar Singh, who had brought Lalji Singh to the airport from his village of Kalwari in Jaunpur district, was forced to drive him all the way to the Benares Hindu University Hospital.

Doctors there tried to help him but failed, as the ‘golden hour’ post the cardiac arrest had lapsed. Ironically, Lalji Singh, who was Vice-Chancellor of BHU during 2011-2014, had done his bit to improve facilities at the medical centre, along with initiatives to raise the standard of the over 100-year-old university.

In a detailed account, Abhishek Singh said despite a prior request, Lalji Singh, who was not feeling well in the knees, was not provided a wheelchair on arrival at the airport around 1610 hrs, by IndiGo Airlines. He was to catch flight # 6E 6913, departing Varanasi at 18:20 and arriving in Hyderabad at 20:20.

After some testing times to get through the initial formalities, Lalji Singh was wheeled into the lounge by a porter. Around 1710 he experienced breathlessness and sweating. On seeing Lalji's condition, his nephew, who with great difficulty managed to get a boarding pass, pleaded with IndiGo for medical help and re-scheduling of his flight to a later date.

The airline retrieved the passenger's baggage but neither provided an escort nor arranged quick medical help. Lalji and his nephew then found a pharmacist/ compounder on their own, who on checking his BP and pulse, sounded the alarm. Immediately, the nephew sought a doctor, oxygen and an ambulance. Nothing was available -- the absence of a doctor was put down to it being a Sunday.

Meanwhile, Lalji Singh goes to the washroom, where he apparently collapses. A worried nephew carries him to the wheelchair and rushes to get an exit pass, where again precious time is lost. At 1750, he got Lalji into his private car and drove through traffic, all the way to BHU hospital. He reached the hospital at 1930, by which time Lalji was in a critical state and doctors could not revive him.

Abhishek SIngh has demanded a thorough probe by the Ministry of Civil Aviation into the events, so that corrective steps are taken and all airports have minimum emergency care so that such tragic events do not recur.

In a career spanning 40 years, Lalji Singh had become Director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, responsible for starting two national labs — CDFD and LACONES. He has published over 200 papers and has undertaken pathbreaking work in DNA fingerprinting and population genetics. He was running the not-for-profit Genome Foundation in Hyderabad post his stint at BHU.

Official response

Meanwhile, senior officials contacted by BusinessLine at Varanasi claimed that help was extended to the passenger, including taking him to the lounge and medical room, where he was advised not to travel in his condition with BP and pulse rate bad. They added that they would not like to get into a discussion on what was being alleged by the family.

The officials maintained that the passenger was taken to the toilet by one of its employees. On the contrary, Lalji and his nephew left the terminal building without informing them.

IndiGo Airlines said Singh requested a wheelchair due to cramps in his legs, which was provided and their staff escorted him to the VIP lounge. "Our staff returned to their duties and were due to return to assist Singh, when boarding was announced. However around 5.14 pm, IndiGo was informed by the airport doctor that the passenger was not in a position to fly. Immediately, the team offered to reschedule his flight to December 17 and with their consent, a booking was made. Following this Singh and his companion left in their own vehicle.

"To our shock, on December 11, 2017, we learnt about Singh’s passing. This is extremely saddening and we share the grief of his family and loved ones," the airline said in its response.

While the country has lost a renowned scientist, the larger and critical question that the entire sequence of events raises is the urgent need for strengthening emergency care. With the government planning to open dozens of new airports in smaller cities, will emergency medicare be made available on priority to ensure that people do not suffer for want of this minimum need.

Published on December 20, 2017

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