In 2016, a tiny group of Kashmiri cardiologists came up with an idea of creating a WhatsApp group with the aim to save hearts with speediness and timely medical intervention. This group comprising well-known Kashmiri cardiologists named the initiative as Save Heart Kashmir (SHK).
In the absence of the internet in all forms in the Kashmir Valley since the removal of Jammu and Kashmir’s regional autonomy and statehood in early August, the SHK initiative has received a major jolt.
Initially, from a mere six in 2016, this network rose to 1200 cardiologists in only two years’ time. By virtue of this voluntary WhatsApp group many heart emergencies across Ladakh, Kashmir and Jammu would be handled with care.
According to the data available with the SHK initiative, this group attended a staggering 38,000 electrocardiograms (ECGs) of about 30,000 patients with heart ailments. The process involved the doctors in far-flung areas, where cardiologists are scarcely available, upload the ECGs of patients in their respective areas, based on which a team of expert doctors would offer their timely expert advice. The experts, all volunteers, were available 24/7, making it a unique and novel concept across the globe.
The cardiologists associated with the initiative also handled over 1,000 people suffering major heart attacks. The internet-based platform, WhatsApp, proved more than handy. Because of this facility, the doctors would reach out to heart patients and those complaining of either mild or severe chest pains within no time.
After the imposition of the ban on the internet in August, this facility has been missed for the last 140 days. As a result, several heart patients have suffered due to the lack of timely medical intervention. Earlier, many lives were saved with a click of a button and a timely message written on the WhatsApp group.
Bizarrely, former governor of Jammu and Kashmir Satya Pal Malik had defended the internet shutdown and restrictions on the use of mobile phones. He had said that these facilities were mostly used by militants and supporters of the ‘Azadi’ camp as weapons to mobilise people for demonstrations.
On 28 August, S. P. Malik told media that “There is much hullabaloo over the absence of telephone facilities (in Kashmir). I want to say that people should wait for 10 more days. For us every life is important. Please try to understand the reasons behind these restrictions. Who uses phones and the internet? It is of little use for us but is mostly exploited by militants and Pakistanis.”
Malik said this in August, but there is no internet in Kashmir even in December.
The figures (38,000 ECGs) give a rough idea of the number of lives that could have been possibly lost after the ban was imposed on the internet in the intervening night of 4 and 5 August.
The WhatsApp group proved to be the lifeline of the SHK initiative, belying the claims of top government functionaries that gag has done little or no harm to the people in the Kashmir Valley.
The doctors say no data was available with them to give the exact number of the possible deaths in the absence of an internet facility.
“If the service was not there, that could have led to deaths. In its absence, (some) patients might have died in transit…Time is paramount in cardiology,” says one of the founding members of the SHK initiative.
Doctors say that every case missed at SHK does not translate into lives lost. In some cases, however, it can turn fatal. Obviously, the doctors say the SHK initiative stopped functioning after the internet was banned.
SHK was started by a team of doctors in Srinagar in November 2017 to improve cardiac care in Jammu, Kashmir, and Ladakh. Over two years, around 1200 doctors working in 130 hospitals in all parts of Jammu and Kashmir became part of the WhatsApp-based initiative.
A team of expert doctors including Dr Imran Haziz and Dr Irfan Bhat, both cardiologists, Dr Nasir Shams, Dr Muzaffar Zargar and Dr Afaq Jalali, all physicians, and Dr Rehana Kousar, an epidemiologist, are the leading lights of the initiative. They work at the tertiary care centres in Srinagar’s main Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences and Shri Maharaja Hari Singh hospitals.
Meanwhile, the doctors in Kashmir observe December 21 as Save Hearts Day. On this day, the doctors interact with media fraternity and apprise journalists of Basic Life Support (BLS), impart basic training to learn easy techniques on how to deal with medical emergencies, and how to save lives with minimum effort in case of an impending heart attack.
Leading cardiologists in the Kashmir Valley warn that emergencies related to cardiac ailments and hypertension witness a dramatic rise during harsh winters. As the mercury dips in Chilla-i-Kalan — a 40-day long period of intense cold that begins on 21st December and lasts until 31st January— a lot of people, especially in their old age, visit the hospitals with complaints of chest pain and high blood pressure, doctors say.
“That is why the training for Basic Life Support (BSL) is vital. You don’t need to be a doctor for this. It can be done with empty hands. In case of an emergency, you have to complete two sets of compressions on chest separated by rescue breaths. You can save lives on the road,” said cardiologist Dr. Nasir Shams.
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He said that in winters, the brain does not function properly and people with a history of hypertension and cardiac ailments are at risk.
“We see a lot of cardiovascular diseases in winters. That is why Epidemiology department issues advisories,” he said.