What led to journalist Tarun Sisodia’s death at AIIMS Delhi?
On the afternoon of July 6, the silence that typically enveloped an outdoor area of Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences Trauma Centre was suddenly shattered.
The area, entrusted with handling the hospital’s liquid oxygen tank and supply system, is an enclosed outdoor space located at the back of the gigantic main building. The large, vertical tank is fenced from all four sides. It is sandwiched between the hospital’s manifold room, which contains its gas control panels, and the main building.
An uproar erupted at about 2 pm. A Covid-positive patient had dashed from the first floor of the building to the fourth, followed by panicky hospital staff who struggled to catch up with him. There was a commotion on the ground below as he had broken a window pane in an attempt to jump. People gathered and shouted, repeatedly asking the patient to go back. But seconds later, he jumped out the window.
The patient, Tarun Sisodia, 37, was a health reporter with the Hindi daily Dainik Bhaskar. After an ambulance rushed him to the intensive care unit of the hospital’s trauma centre, Tarun was intubated. Attempts were made to resuscitate him, AIIMS stated in a press release. “But unfortunately, he succumbed to his injuries at 3.35 pm.”
According to a security guard posted opposite the spot, Tarun used an emergency staircase to reach the window on the fourth floor. A bathroom is situated right below the window.
“So, he probably first fell on the bathroom’s roof and then on the ground,” the security guard told Newslaundry, pointing towards a small rectangular room in a corner of the enclosed outdoor space.
A staffer from the manifold room had heard the noise outside and came out. He saw some hospital personnel, including two or three people in PPE kits, and a couple of policemen waiting outside the fencing gate of the enclosure containing the tank. The staffer opened the gate and everyone went inside.
From a distance, the staffer could see the body lying on the ground. An ambulance was already waiting nearby, and Tarun was whisked away 10 minutes later.
A positive test result and admission at AIIMS
The AIIMS trauma centre was converted into a Covid-only facility when the virus outbreak spiked alarmingly in Delhi. The first, second and third floors of the building have ICUs for the patients, the security guard told Newslaundry. Soon after, a new ICU was arranged on the ground floor to accommodate the increasing number of patients, he said.
The rest of the floors — the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh — have general wards.
Tarun was admitted to the trauma centre on June 24. According to his younger brother Gaurav, he had tested positive for Covid-19 a day earlier at north-east Delhi’s Bhajanpura dispensary near their house.
Tarun had been showing symptoms like fever and breathing difficulties for the past five or six days, Gaurav said. On June 24, following the test result, he was taken in an ambulance to the AIIMS trauma centre. “He was accompanied by our elder brother Deepak on behalf of the family.”
The Sisodia family lives in Bhajanpura in a house they own. They’ve stayed at this address for nearly 40 years. Family members include Tarun’s parents, his wife and two children, Deepak, and Deepak’s wife and two children.
Gaurav is a head constable with the Central Industrial Security Force. He lives with his wife in Ranchi where he is currently posted. He reached home on the evening of July 7, a day after Tarun’s death.
In March this year, Tarun had surgery for a brain tumour at the GB Pant Hospital. As per the AIIMS press release, it was for “frontal lobe meningioma”. Tarun returned to work after his recovery, Gaurav said, going out for reporting on alternate days and working from home on others.
After testing positive for Covid-19 and being admitted in AIIMS, Tarun was in regular touch with the family, Gaurav said. For the first three or four days, he said he was recovering well.
“But then he started complaining about the mistreatment of patients by the hospital staff,” Gaurav said. “He would say some alarming stuff: ‘the staff misbehaves here’, ‘random persons come and give injections to patients’, and so on.” According to his brother, Tarun also alleged that the hospital staff kept an eye on his phone, and he feared that “anything might happen” to him.
Towards the end of June, Tarun was unreachable on his phone for a day or two. When he was contactable again, he denied any knowledge of what had happened and why he had disappeared. “When we asked a doctor treating him, we were told that Tarun was doing fine. All the disturbing things he said were bhram, delusion, according to the doctor,” Gaurav said. “He assured us not to worry.”
In its statement, AIIMS claimed that during Tarun’s Covid treatment, he had “bouts of disorientation for which he was seen by Neurologist and Psychiatrist and put on medication”. “The family members were regularly counselled regarding his condition,” the statement said.
Gaurav said Tarun had no symptoms earlier that might connect to his mental health. Some of Tarun’s friends, however, told Newslaundry that Tarun had said odd, disoriented things to them while he was in hospital.
Allegations of foul play and negligence
Shortly after Tarun’s death, social media was abuzz with a range of questions over the incident. Several journalists claimed his death was “suspicious” and that there should be an independent inquiry into it. Screenshots circulated of messages purportedly sent by Tarun to a WhatsApp group where he claimed his life was in danger.
“He was admitted in the first floor ICU. How did he get up to the fourth floor?” he asked. According to him, Tarun had talked about not getting proper treatment two or three days before his death.
The family then complained about it to the doctors at AIIMS, Deepak said. “They [the doctors] said he [Tarun] was saying so because he was stressed from being admitted in hospital.”
The controversy surrounding Tarun’s death prompted a quick intervention from the highest level of the government. Union health minister Dr Harsh Vardhan ordered the AIIMS director to immediately constitute an official inquiry into the incident.
The key complaint, as raised by Tarun’s family and many on social media, was: how did Tarun leave the ICU and run to the fourth floor? Was there a lapse on AIIMS’s part that led to his death?
Since the pandemic began and the trauma centre was converted into a Covid-only facility, the presence of security personnel was significantly cut down inside the building, according to several security guards working at the trauma centre.
“Only hospital staff like doctors and nurses go inside besides the Covid patients. So, there’s no need for many security personnel unlike in ordinary circumstances,” said one guard stationed near the main entrance to the building.
According to another, security personnel are currently deployed near ramps and at entry points to the building. They are not deployed inside the corridors and wards. “The staircase is accessible inside the building. So, it’s possible for a patient to come out of their room and use it, just as Tarun did,” he explained.
Moreover, Tarun was admitted in a high dependency unit, or HDU, on the first floor, said a senior doctor privy to the case. An HDU is almost like an ICU but with minor technical variations. Generally located close to an ICU, patients with slightly better conditions are kept in an HDU, the doctor said, on the condition of anonymity.
A nurse at AIIMS told Newslaundry that an HDU provides more dedicated care than a general ward, but not the kind of intensive care as provided in an ICU. “For example, patients are not given intubation in such a unit which allows them to get off their beds, walk around at times to access toilets or relax their body muscles,” the nurse said.
‘He said he was feeling really scared’
Apart from the internal inquiry by AIIMS, Tarun’s death is being investigated by the Safdarjung Enclave police station. Imran Khan, the investigating officer, told Newslaundry that Tarun was in bed number 16 in the HDU. There was some electrical work going on in the unit, he added.
On the afternoon of July 6, Khan said, Tarun caught everyone by surprise when he picked up a tube light and started shouting, “Get me out of here in 10 minutes. Otherwise I will die or I will kill.” He then ran out of the room with the tube light in hand, Khan said.
The CCTV footage showed the hospital attendants and nursing staff on duty running after Tarun, Khan said. “But the hospital staff were in PPE kits, and Tarun was in plain clothes. So they could not move fast and match his pace,” he explained. Tarun then went to the fourth floor, broke the windowpane, sat there briefly, and jumped, Khan said.
One of Tarun’s colleagues told Newslaundry that he had spoken to Tarun two hours before the latter’s death. Tarun had sent his location on the office WhatsApp group with the message “I need help, police”, the colleague explained.
“I immediately called him after seeing it but his phone was busy at that time. A little later, he called up, requesting me to find out the address of the location,” the colleague said.
The colleague said that Tarun told him he was not at the trauma centre, that the hospital authorities had sent him to a distant location. “But I checked the location and it showed the address of the trauma centre. I told him this but he was not ready to believe me. He said he was feeling scared.”
Another friend of Tarun’s, who spoke to the deceased journalist several times during his treatment, told Newslaundry a similar story.
“Once he told me he was being shifted to Narela. Then at times he would tell me he was being taken to a private hospital,” the friend said, on the condition of anonymity. “He worried about paying the hefty bill of the private hospital. But the fact is that throughout the treatment he was in the trauma centre.”
The friend is a part of a group of six close friends, Tarun included. Everyone would talk to Tarun to cheer him up, the friend said. Like the colleague, Tarun asked him to track his location, and it showed up as the trauma centre. “We explained this and tried to assure him that he was getting proper treatment,” the friend said.
Covid-19 and mental health of patients
When some of Tarun’s friends spoke to doctors at AIIMS about Tarun’s mental health, they were told he had gone into a “state of psychosis”.
A doctor familiar with Tarun’s treatment said as much too. Tarun’s frontal lobe surgery in March did have an effect on him, he said. “It can happen to anybody. His state was not only because of Covid. Psychological problems do happen because of Covid but his condition was multi-factorial,” the doctor said.
The doctor firmly denied the allegations that Tarun received poor treatment. Tarun was given “state of the art treatment”, he said. “Tarun was also given remdesivir. His CT scans were taken. He was shown to the neurosurgeon and neurologist.”
In the days preceding Tarun’s death, his family was continuously apprised of his condition, the doctor said. “There are call logs of it. There are statements from doctors about his condition. Everything is very transparent.”
The link between Covid-19 and a patient’s mental health is still being studied by scientists and doctors. On July 8, a group of neurologists in the United Kingdom published a paper detailing over 40 Covid patients and associations with “neurological and neuropsychiatric illness”. Complications “ranged from brain inflammation and delirium to nerve damage and stroke,” the Guardian reported.
One of the patients was a 55-year-old woman with no history of psychiatric illness. She “began to behave oddly the day after she was discharged from hospital”, was readmitted, and “gradually improved on antipsychotic medication”.
On July 10, the four-member inquiry committee of AIIMS submitted its report to the union health minister. According to the committee, there was no malafide intent behind Tarun’s death, nor was there any lapse in the treatment protocol. However, Harsh Vardhan directed the formation of an expert committee to suggest “suitable changes in the administration” for AIIMS and the trauma centre. The medical superintendent of the trauma centre was ordered to be replaced and the committee was asked to table its report by July 27.
While the police investigation is yet to be completed, investigating officer Imran Khan said it seemed to be a case of suicide based on their inquiry so far. “I don’t think there is a murder angle here,” he said.
If Tarun saw some mismanagement inside the ward and captured it on his phone, as some are saying, Khan reasoned that he would have shared the information with others as well. “But we haven’t seen anything like that.”
(Cover: Tarun was admitted to AIIMS trauma centre on June 24)