Students lend helping hand to India’s COVID-19 efforts

Packing oxygen concentrators for India: From left, students Aditya Tiwari of UMass Amherst and Mrinal Sahoo of BU; Deepak Sahu, MPH '21; and George Zina, IT Project Manager for UMass Memorial Health Care

Working with a professor, a Worcester, Mass. hospital, and Indian friends and colleagues, two students help secure desperately needed oxygen concentrators for COVID-19 patients to use at home

June 3, 2021 – As COVID-19 has surged in India, killing thousands and sending thousands more to overcrowded hospitals, demand has shot up for oxygen concentrators—portable devices that can help patients breathe at home. But the devices have been in short supply during the pandemic.

Two Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health master of public health students from India, distressed at the situation, worked with one of their professors, a hospital in Worcester, Mass., and Indian friends and colleagues to help ship 39 oxygen concentrators to their home country. The devices arrived in Delhi on May 17 after two weeks of urgent emails, phone calls, and coordination.

Deepak Sahu
Deepak Sahu

“We just wanted to help people,” said Deepak Sahu, MPH ’21, a health care management student and a partner at health care consulting firm Alira Health, who has been working on the side since late April to assist the Indian government in securing concentrators and other health care equipment in its efforts to battle the pandemic. Sahu helped arrange the shipment with fellow student Amrutha Denduluri, MPH ’21, whom he’d met in a class at Harvard Business School.

Amrutha Denduluri
Amrutha Denduluri

Denduluri, who will soon begin a residency in family medicine at the University of Arkansas in Little Rock, had been conducting telehealth consultations with COVID-19 patients in India since late April, as part of a volunteer effort among Indian doctors around the world to provide basic advice on mild COVID symptoms, preventive strategies, and home-based care. “The objective was to help ease the anxiety that was building up among the public about COVID, to encourage people to get vaccines, and to discuss and spread correct information for questions such as ‘when to go to a hospital’ or ‘what are normal oxygen saturation levels,’ and so on,” Denduluri said.

“I was advising a few patients every day on the phone, and it hit me that there should be something more we can do,” she explained. “The problem in India is enormous. They need oxygen concentrators, ventilators, ICU [intensive care unit] beds, PPE [personal protective equipment]. When I talked to Deepak about it, he was more than happy to see if there were tangible ways we could help.”

Sahu had already been successful at securing some concentrators and other supplies, including ventilators, oximeters, and masks, from several U.S. hospitals and manufacturers. But concentrators—sorely needed in India, particularly in rural areas—were hard to find. “We realized that vendors didn’t have concentrators in their inventory, because prior to the Indian crisis there was the Brazilian crisis, and the South American crisis, and so on, so the vendors had a backlog of four to five months,” he said. That meant the only way to get the devices was to collect them from medical facilities that had some to spare.

Sahu and Denduluri began reaching out to their contacts to see if anyone had a lead on where to get concentrators. One of those people was Richard Siegrist, senior lecturer on health care management and director of the master in health care management (MHCM) and Harvard DrPH programs at Harvard Chan School, who had been a professor of theirs. Siegrist is also chair of the board of trustees at Worcester’s UMass Memorial Health Care (UMMHC), and he helped connect Sahu and Denduluri with his contacts there. Among them was UMMHC CEO Eric Dickson, himself a graduate of Harvard Chan’s MHCM program and also a former student of Siegrist’s.

It turned out that UMMHC did have some oxygen concentrators that weren’t being used. They were stored at a field hospital for COVID-19 patients—established in April 2020 in an arena and convention center complex in Worcester—that was being decommissioned.

Although concentrators typically cost as much $3,000 or $4,000, Dickson and the UMMHC team offered them for only $500 each. “UMass was very kind,” said Sahu. Funds for the concentrators came from Deserving Causes India Foundation, a nonprofit focused on disaster relief in India.

Sahu, Denduluri, and other friends and colleagues figured out customs requirements, shipping logistics, packaging, and other issues. The effort wasn’t without hiccups: The U.S. travel ban on India, issued April 30, delayed the shipment, and it took two weeks to clear all the hurdles. Sahu worked with Vikram Pagaria, MPH ’20, deputy secretary of India’s ministry of finance, in arranging the transport. On May 18, Pagaria posted on LinkedIn, “We dreamt that those OCs will come to India and today after 13 days, the dream has come true. The OCs were shipped on May 12 from MA and reached India on May 17. It is so satisfying to be able to bring these OCs to India!”

Siegrist praised Sahu’s and Denduluri’s efforts. “I am deeply impressed with what Deepak and Amrutha were able to accomplish in addressing a humanitarian crisis in real time,” he said. “They identified what they could do to help and then leveraged their contacts and public health skills to literally save lives in rural India through their concerted efforts.”

For Sahu and Denduluri, the work will continue. The team is currently collecting supplies from Southcoast Hospitals Group (two ventilators), Tufts Medical Center (700+ KN95 masks), and Baystate Health (600 oximeters), among other efforts.

“We will keep meeting with as many people as possible in the coming weeks to see how else we can help,” said Denduluri. She added, “This is such a positive thing that happened, and I’m just happy to be part of it.”

Karen Feldscher

Photo at top courtesy Deepak Sahu