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Vandit Malik and Shivashish Gupta of Friends Studios motivating a patient at the Divyanchal Garden Covid-19 centre in Katni, Madhya Pradesh
In the first week of May, when 22-year-old Vandit Malik and his friends were volunteering at the Divyanchal Garden Covid-19 centre in the Katni district of Madhya Pradesh, they saw 35-year-old Anurag Jhariya sitting on a bench, unattended by the five medical staff taking care of the 150-plus patients at the centre. The next day, when Malik visited the centre, he saw Jhariya sitting at the same spot, looking pale and weaker than the previous day. That’s when Malik approached him. “When I spoke to him, his condition was so bad that he couldn’t speak. He somehow managed to tell me that he needs oxygen. I immediately checked his SpO2 level, and it was down to 60. I looked around, and there was no one with him,” says Malik. With elderly parents and a three-year-old daughter at home, Jhariya had chosen to come to the centre alone.
“We arranged for a bed and an oxygen cylinder, but his situation was deteriorating. The next day we got him admitted to a private hospital, where he recovered over the next two weeks,” says Malik. “If we didn’t give immediate attention, we could have lost him. We made it a point to talk to him daily, address his concerns, monitor his oxygen levels, and ensure him that he’ll be fine. Today, he says that our support is what gave him the strength to fight.”
Providing emotional support and counselling services to Covid-19 patients is what a group of around 10 friends has been doing for the past two months at government and private Covid-19 centres in Katni. “When we first saw the condition of these centres, we realised that the patients weren't getting the required attention because of the excessive caseload, and only a handful of doctors to treat them. That’s when we decided to volunteer at these centres to regularly monitor patients' SpO2 levels, talk to them and provide emotional support,” says Malik, a computer science student at San Francisco State University, California, who returned to India in March 2020.
“We saw that with severe symptoms, and no human interaction, patients were losing the will to fight. Some would even tell us that they don’t want to live. We’d sit with them, motivate them to fight the virus,” says Malik. Patients would usually mistake Malik and his friends to be doctors. “We were all in PPE kits; they’d think we’re doctors reassuring them that they’ll get better, and that I think helped them believe in us more.”
Members of Friends Studios (From left to right) : Vishal Tripathi, Bhavya Saraogi,Ayush Saraogi Shrikant Bichpuriya,Manjot Singh, Shivashish Gupta, Sahil Soni, Vandit Malik, Piyush Saraogi
The group also started screening the patients for co-morbidities and monitored them accordingly. “A diabetic patient needs extra care, because their blood sugar level also needs to be monitored. We’d identify which patient has which ailment and monitor that accordingly.” The group learned the basics of monitoring patients from the doctors at the centres they visited.
Friends Studio, the initiative by Malik and his friends, has been operational since 2016. What started as an effort to provide aid to the underprivileged in Katni’s slums, became a Covid-19 relief initiative during the pandemic. From feeding stray animals in the city with 700 kg of vegetables every day, and helping around 50,000 migrant labourers travel through their district by providing them with ration kits and 24X7 on-call Covid-19 assistance, the group of 20-somethings are tirelessly working round the clock to help those in need.
Malik and the team have also been helping those who are isolating at home. “Many times, relatives of elderly Covid patients would call, asking for help. We’d then provide cooked meals and sit with them to talk,” he says.
“We wanted to register Friends Studio as an NGO, but it required Rs 30,000 for registration. We knew then that instead of spending money on registration, we can spend the same amount on arranging for food and other essentials for so many more people,” says Malik, adding that despite getting donations, the money is never enough. “People do contribute, but whatever we get is always going to be inadequate, because there will always be something we can do better for the people who need our help. Right now, we end up spending a lot from our own pockets.”
Malik also runs a bakery named The Garlic Bread in Bhopal, “I got the idea of establishing a bakery from my time in California. The Garlic Bread has been active for three years, and we have been able to expand it too. Helping people will always be my priority. But to help them, I need money, which is what this startup is helping me earn.”
For Malik and his team, volunteering at the Covid-19 centres has been distressing as well. “It takes a toll on your mental health, seeing so much pain and misery makes us feel helpless. Every night I’d sit with myself to think about my actions, to calm myself down from the overwhelming events of the day. But realising that all our efforts are helping save lives drives us to do more,” he says.