Doctors in Kerala went on a day-long flash strike after an under-suspension teacher, allegedly a drug addict, murdered an on-duty 23-year-old house surgeon at the government-run Taluk Hospital in Kottarakkara, in Kollam district, early on Wednesday, 10 May.
The victim, Dr Vandana Das, was the only daughter of KG Mohandas and Vasanthakumari of Manjoor near Kottayam.
The incident occurred around 4.30 am on Wednesday when the police took an injured S Sandeep of Kudavattoor near Kottarakkara for treatment to the hospital.
Dr Das was dressing the injuries 42-year-old Sandeep had suffered in a fight when he grabbed a pair of scissors and a scalpel and launched an attack. While the doctor was killed, five others, including two police personnel, were injured in the incident.
The shocking incident occurred a day after Sandeep, a teacher of Nedumpana Upper Primary School, was discharged from a drug de-addiction centre.
After his discharge, Sandeep reportedly picked up a fight with his relatives, in which he was injured. The police, who intervened after being informed of the incident, did not restrain him with handcuffs as he was not a suspect.
The hospital’s security guard Manilal, police officers Alex Kutty and Baby Mohan, and Sandeep’s relative Binu were also injured in the attack.
The police and the hospital staff struggled for an hour to bring Sandeep under control.
Sandeep had been placed under suspension due to his addiction to drugs.
What happened at the hospital?
The striking staff of the Taluk Hospital at Kottarakka shut down the establishment on Wednesday and took out a protest rally.
Dr Das had recently completed her MBBS from Azeezia Institute of Medical Sciences and Research in Kollam and was undergoing the mandatory house surgency as part of the course at the hospital.
Though she was soon taken to a leading private hospital in Thiruvananthapuram, doctors could not save her life. The police claimed that they had taken Sandeep to the hospital as an injured person and not as an accused.
He also looked calm. He reportedly got agitated on seeing his relative, Binu, and went on a rampage. Dr Das tried to pacify him but was pushed to the floor and stabbed multiple times in her back and abdomen.
Doctors who tried to save her life, later said she died of internal hemorrhage.
The Kerala chapter of the Indian Medical Association (IMA) expressed shock over the incident and called for a day-long protest. Doctors, except those on emergency duties, would stay away from work.
Another doctors’ body, the Kerala Government Medical Officers’ Association (KGMOA), too, called for a strike.
KGMOA also urged the government to strengthen security in hospitals, ensure due precautions are taken when bringing accused in custody for medical examination and urgently implement a triage system.
The Kerala State Human Rights Commission, based on media reports of the incident, on its own initiated a case and sought a report within seven days from the District Police Chief of Kollam.
HC slams government, police
The Kerala High Court slammed the state government and the police over the incident, saying it indicated their “failure” to protect doctors.
A special bench of Justices Devan Ramachandran and Kauser Edappagath said the police were trained and expected to protect women and children, but they failed to protect the young doctor.
“It is a complete failure of the system. Having an aid post in a hospital is not enough. When you (police) knew the man was acting abnormally, you should have restrained him,” the court said.
“You should be able to anticipate the unanticipated. Else there is no need for the police. Over time, we have become casual, Did you not fail this girl?” the bench asked, adding that it had on several occasions in the past warned that such an incident would occur if nothing was done.
“This is what we were scared of. We had said in the past that something like this could happen,” the bench said.
The court said the incident has created a “fear psychosis” among the doctors, medical students and their parents.
“Doctors have gone on strike. What excuse would you give for denial of treatment to thousands of patients as a result? Can you blame the doctors for any problem caused to any patient today due to the strike?” the court asked the state government.
MLA counters minister’s statement
The incident also pitted the state health minister Veena George, a former journalist, against MLA KB Ganesh Kumar.
While expressing shock over the incident, George said the junior doctor could not escape because of her inexperience.
MLA Kumar of the Kerala Congress (B), a constituent of the ruling LDF, countered saying no one — whether experienced or not — could escape an unexpected attack by a drug addict.
Criticising her statement, Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee president K Sudhakaran questioned what the minister meant by the doctor being inexperienced.
“Does she mean the doctor was inexperienced to counter or defend against an attack by a man addicted to drugs and alcohol? The statement is a joke,” he told reporters.
Condoling the death of the doctor, Sudhakaran said it was sad and unfortunate that something like this happened.
Leader of Opposition in the Assembly and senior Congress leader VD Satheesan said the doctor’s murder had shaken the entire Kerala society.
He contended that it was a dangerous situation that hospitals were not safe places and alleged that the doctor was killed due to “negligence of the police”.
Education Minister V Sivankutty also condoled the death and said it was a shocking incident. He said the government would take all necessary steps under the law including departmental action against the accused, who is a school teacher.
Union Minister of State for External Affairs and Parliamentary Affairs V Muraleedharan, while expressing shock and concern over the tragic incident, contended it was a shame that doctors and healthcare workers were not safe in Kerala.
CM Pinarayi Vijayan reacts
As the murder sent shock-waves across the state, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan visited the family of Vandana Das at the hospital and condoled their loss.
Later, in a Facebook post, he said the government would be taking strict action against the accused.
“The murder of the young doctor in Kottarakkara is shocking and painful. The attacks against health workers on duty are unacceptable.
“A detailed probe will be conducted into the incident. The government will be taking strict action against those who attack doctors and other health workers on duty.”
Attacks on health workers
Earlier, the minister had announced that legislation would be brought in to curb attacks on health workers.
Kerala has been witnessing repeated violence against doctors for quite some time. The IMA alleged that insensitivity among patients and those accompanying them was on an upswing, and accused the government of failing to initiate preventive measures.
In 2022, as many as 137 attacks on doctors, nurses, and health workers were reported.
On 6 March this year, a 60-year-old cardiologist at the Fathima Hospital in Kozhikode was grievously injured by the relatives of a woman who gave birth to a stillborn baby. The relatives alleged inaction on the part of the doctor.
In February, the husband of a woman who died during treatment at the Government Medical College Hospital in Thiruvananthapuram, brutally attacked a lady doctor.
Last year, activists of the CPI(M)’s youth wing, the DYFI, attacked a security officer attached to the Kozhikode Medical College Hospital, when he denied them entry during non-visiting hours.
A death foretold
Incidentally, Dr Das’s untimely death came after Muralee Thummarukudi, a disaster response management expert with the UN, warned of such an impending incident in Kerala hospitals.
“Five health workers are being attacked by patients or their relatives a month in Kerala,” Thummarukudi posted on Facebook on 1 April.
“Fortunately, there have been no deaths. It’s mere luck. Such a death will occur. It’s certain,” he noted.
Incidentally, Thummarukudi had on 1 April made another Facebook post, saying a houseboat tragedy that would kill 10 people or more was impending in Kerala.
On Sunday, 7 May, a recreational boat sank close to the Poorappuzha estuary at Ottumpuram near Thooval Theeram in the Malappuram district’s Tanur, killing 22, more than what Thummarukudi had projected.
Dr Suphi Noohu of the IMA Kerala chapter, too, made a Facebook post on 6 April, saying doctors were discharging their duties under the constant threat of death.
(This story has been updated with PTI inputs and Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s reaction)