Safdarjung Hospital, New Delhi
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Started As Wartime Medical Unit Of US Army, It Has Fought Neglect To Serve Poor
Safdarjung Hospital was once called American Hospital and was established in 1942 for the treatment of soldiers injured in World War II in the China-Burma-India theatre of war. “Many American doctors worked here during the war, so locals began calling it American Hospital,“ said Dr Yatish Agarwal, professor of diagnostic radiology and imaging at the medical institution. In May 2017, the hospital will celebrate 75 years of existence that began in humble military barracks. Some of the barracks still stand, though their roofs and walls have been renovated to remedy the ravages of weather and to create additional space. In the wards here, as old pictures with Agarwal show, the injured soldiers were nurtured back to health by girls from the US Army Nurses Corps. Such images of Safdarjung as a wartime medical unit are preserved in the archives of US Army Signal Corps, US embassy in India and the Photo Division of the ministry of information and broadcasting.
After Safdarjung Hospital was thrown open to the public in 1954, it claimed many firsts for hospitals in India, including the establishment of the first sleep laboratory and a skin culture lab and the use of radioactive iodine for thyroid treatment, said Agarwal.It was the premier medical institution in the capital, visited by VVIPs such as the Indian presidents and prime ministers. Agarwal recollected former PM Indira Gandhi undergoing a surgical procedure at Safdarjung in the 1970s.
Safdarjung lost its pre-eminence in 1956, when the All India Institute of Medical Sciences was built on a neighbouring plot as a research and referral hospital. While VVIPs began flocking to the new hospital, Safdarjung was favoured mostly by the common man, but it continued to grow as an institution. Few people know that the first few batches of AIIMS' medical students honed their skills at Safdarjung Hospital.
The hospital had 204 beds in the 1950s; this has gone up to 1,531 now. “The poor people have faith in us and that is our biggest achievement,“ Dr A K Rai, medical superintendent of Safdarjung Hospital, said with quiet pride. “We admit more patients than the beds in the hospital can accommodate.“
Rai disclosed that a major redevelopment plan was under way to augment the hospital's infrastructure. A new emergency and super-specialty blocks are nearing completion, and there are plans to build a separate block to offer mother and child health services. However, despite its hoary history , many doctors at Safdarjung grumble about neglect by the government, pointing out how AIIMS gets more funds and official attention. “AIIMS can refuse patients citing unavailability of beds, but we have to admit everyone approaching us,“ said a doctor. “This puts extra pressure on us, though we have somehow managed these inconveniences.“
Most doctors working at Safdarjung also felt that the hospital needed to upgrade its facilities, adding more operation theatres and stream lining super-specialty services such as cancer surgery and neurosurgery .
“The waiting rooms too are grossly inadequate, and often patients and attendants have to make do with makeshift shelters or in the open,“ another doctor said. The lack of appropriate public utilities compounds the problem. The doctor, mindful of the hospi tal's rich legacy of service, rued that Safdarjung had not been nurtured properly . At the least, he said, there should be a museum to showcase the history of this institution.