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Michigan physicians helping India battle COVID surge from afar from Crain’s Detroit Business

May 8, 2021

After seeing her own patients throughout the day at Detroit Medical Center, Dr. Teena Chopra gets on the phone nights to talk with a new round of patients — from India.

Chopra is helping to staff a free COVID educational assistance hotline for people in her home country struggling with the illness.

The Troy-based Michigan Chapter of Indian-American Community Services set up the hotline as a way for Indian physicians practicing here to help people in the developing country. She takes questions from people who have been exposed and are looking for guidance, and others who have mild COVID and want some education on how to help other family members from being exposed in tight family homes.

“We can speak in their native language…I can tell them ‘this is how you wash your hands, cover your nose and mouth with the mask,'” small things that can make a difference, said Chopra, who is corporate medical director of infection prevention, hospital epidemiology and antibiotic stewardship at Detroit Medical Center and Wayne State University and professor of infectious diseases at WSU.

“We feel like we are helping and we are making a difference even though we are practicing in America,” she said.

Chopra is one of many Asian Indian doctors in Michigan helping India battle a COVID surge from afar by lending medical expertise, raising awareness and money and leveraging relationships to connect people in India to medical equipment and care.

She’s helping spread the word about the hotline through the Internet-based WhatsApp platform, where conversations are happening between the Indian communities here in the U.S. and in India.

And last week, she and her young daughter, who was able to visit family in India before the pandemic, both recorded short videos asking for support to help purchase medical equipment, food and supplies. They will be added to others and sent out as part of a global fundraising appeal.

“It is beyond words to describe the number of deaths in India and what they are going through,” Chopra said.

“Children are losing both of their parents.”

Thinking COVID was over, India had stopped masking, she said. People already living in small homes and apartments with multiple generations of their families let their guard down, attending election rallies and religious festivals that drew thousands of people.

The country, a third the size of the U.S., is home to 4 times the U.S. population, or 1.3 billion people. Two-thirds of the country is rural. While there are large cities like the capital New Delhi and Bombay with many small hospitals, it was just a matter of time before they became overrun, said Aniruddh Behere, assistant professor of pediatrics, human development, psychiatry and behavioral medicine at Michigan State University.

Behere also serves as medial director for the inpatient consult liaison service and for global health and psychiatry at Spectrum Health’s Helen Devos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids.

Very few in the country have a vehicle. They must rely on public transportation to get the 50-100 miles to a hospital. But the bigger issue is the lack of hospital beds, Behere said.

“The last couple of weeks have been extremely difficult…we’ve had family members (and) friends who’ve passed away.”

The pleas for help are rampant on social media from people trying to find oxygen and hospital beds, he said, noting a fairly large number of people in the developing country have cell phones and Wifi access even from rural areas is pretty good.

“Everyone I know within my circle of friends, physicians, are doing the same thing. We’re trying to facilitate finding beds for patients who are really sick, medicines, oxygen, really critical medical supplies.”

Physicians at MSU, Spectrum and other places are part of many different alumni service groups in India and are using their connections to find hospital beds and medical groups, Behere said.

From their office or home here in Michigan, Indian physicians like Behere are also helping raise awareness through all of their interactions. Others, like WSU physician Julie Samantray, are helping to raise money through U.S. nonprofits connected to India groups, like the Odisha Society of the Americas and three national organizations recommended by the Michigan online Indian community portal, Miindia.com.

Miindia.com is pointing those who wish to support COVID relief in India to three national groups: SEWA International, American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin and American India Foundation.

  • “Money is going to get to the right place quickly”with donations to those groups, said Anand Kumar, president and CEO of Miindia.com.

“They are procuring medical equipment here and shipping it out to the various destinations in India.”

Physicians at the University of Michigan, where 1,000 current students and 6,000 alumni hail from India, are part of a U.S./India group working on the same thing.

They jump on nightly calls/video meetings of about 400 physicians and academic leaders that began at McGill University but now includes physicians from across the country, said Ravi Pendse, vice president for information technology and chief information officer at the University of Michigan and co-chair of the UM India Advisory Board.

The group is collaborating on fundraising, leveraging relationships to purchase badly needed oxygen concentrators and getting them to high-need areas in the country, Pendse said, noting the first drop of 2,000 oxygen concentrators procured from the group arrived in India last week.

A UM alum who owns the largest ambulance company in Indiais helping to identify hotspots that could use the medical devices, he said.

UM physicians who are part of the India COVID SOS international volunteer group also played a role in developing care cards for people living in rural India. The cards, translated to 16 or more languages, include tips to wear a mask, check your oxygen levels with a pulse oximeter, stay hydrated and treat fevers, open windows for ventilation and isolate from others in the home.

“We’ve heard from graduates in India who are providing oxygen to hospitals and using their companies to support infrastructure and provide real-time data to health officials,” University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel said in an open letter.

“Our faculty and staff are also working tirelessly to share medical and public health expertise with peers in India.”

As they work to help others, Indian physicians are also dealing with trauma in their own families. Most have family members who are sick or have succumbed to the disease.

Chopra has had many family members contract the disease, including her father-in-law, who was hospitalized for a month in the ICU and now has post-COVID long hauler syndrome.

“I’ve been helping him, talking to his physicians, negotiating with his physicians,” Chopra said.

But many others who don’t have physician family members are struggling, so Indian physicians here in the U.S. are doing everything they can from a distance.

“India is very close to our hearts and we are hurting because India is hurting,” Chopra said.

Read, “Michigan physicians helping India battle COVID surge from afar” from Crain’s Detroit Business.

Michigan physicians helping India battle COVID surge from afar from Crain’s Detroit Business

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