Every year on November 26, Dr Sanjay Chatterjee, a surgeon with Bombay Hospital, receives a message on his mobile phone from a patient, thanking him for his “second birth”.Patients thanking doctors for their well-being is common, but Chatterjee’s patient is different: he underwent five surgeries after he was shot at by terrorists while he was on his duty as a chef in Taj Mahal Hotel,during the 60-hour siege in November, 2008.
Five years have passed since that terror attack but Chatterjee remembers every surgery he performed during the siege. “I retrieved around 13 bullets lodged deep inside the organs of those injured in the attack. When I first received a call from the hospital asking me to report to work, I thought it was a gang war, which was common in these areas. But only when we saw the patients did we realise it was something bigger.”
Doctors at Bombay Hospital watched television between the surgeries as they “were clueless” about the nature of the attack. In Mumbai, surgeons who treat terror attack victims are accustomed to seeing injuries caused by bomb blasts, but the 26/11 attack was the first ‘warfare’ injuries that many doctors attended to.
Dr A Bhandarwar, professor of surgery at Sir JJ Hospital, Byculla, said, “These were civilians being brought in with multiple bullets in their vital organs; some had bullets so deeply embedded inside the body that it was impossible to remove them; many are still living with them.”
Echoing the view, Chatterjee, said, “We had seen injuries from revolvers but that day we were treating patients with bullets fired from high intensity rifles (AK-47s) which cause different kind of injuries that are difficult to treat.”
A majority of 26/11 victims were brought to Sir JJ group of hospitals which includes St George Hospital, next to the CST station where two of the terrorists fired at passengers waiting for trains.
Doctors manning the casualty wards of Sir JJ, GT and St George Hospital received 108 bodies over three days. Apart from civilians, the casualties included two National Security Guard (NSG) commandos and several police offcials.
“We received around 72 bodies within an hour,” recalled Bhandarwar, who was posted at St George Hospital then. “We did five operations at the same time. All the doctors worked for the entire night. But as the attack was continuous, we put doctors on rotation duty of eight hours each to prevent fatigue.”
As doctors at St George Hospital were saving lives of those injured, terrorists shot down staffers at the neighbouring Cama and Albless Women and Children Hospital, which is part of JJ group of hospitals. Dr Girish Bakshi of Sir JJ Hospital’s surgery department said, “Despite rumours that the terrorists will attack more hospitals, all our senior doctors, students and even sweepers, ward boys were on duty.”
Dr Sanjay Chatterjee
“We had to turn down donors who had queued up outside the hospital’s blood bank. It was a heartening to see that Mumbaikars who were unrelated to these victims coming to the hospital with fruits, food packets and clothes. That’s when I actually understood what people label as the ‘Mumbai spirit’.”
Sir JJ Hospital treated 163 injured of whom they were unable to save eight even after surgical intervention. In fact, in 2010, doctors from JJ Hospital were lauded by a team of trauma experts from the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, US, for managing to save the maximum patients with multiple bullet injuries.
However, doctors said that very little has changed in the city’s disaster preparedness and trauma care. “Availability of an ambulance with a doctor could save many lives. The fact that so many people could be saved was because a majority of the tertiary hospitals were located very close to the sites of attack,” said a doctor involved with disaster management.
Experts said Mumbai still lacks a trauma ambulance system dedicated to ferry patients for whom even a minute’s delay could be fatal. “Every minute is crucial for a patient who has multiple trauma injuries,” said Dr Mukund Tayde, head of surgery department at JJ Hospital.
Doctors said early treatment, especially in trauma patients, could almost double the chances of survival. “Heroic surgeries don’t save as many people as getting them to hospitals on time do,” added Chatterjee.