The first thing noticeable about Izhaar Hussain Shaikh is the fatigue marking his youthful face. The second thing is that his phone constantly buzzes.
The 30-year-old ambulance driver works for HelpNow, an initiative started by three engineering students in 2019 to help the stretched services of first responders in the Indian coastal city of Mumbai. It charges patients, but services are free for the city’s administrators, police force, medicos and the poor.
In a city with a history of ambulance shortages and where the coronavirus pandemic has claimed nearly 1,300 lives, putting the health care system under immense strain, every bit of help counts. And it is people like Shaikh — working tirelessly, dodging health risks — who are helping to ease that burden.
“My family, neighbors, everyone is scared. I am frightened too," said Shaikh. "But I keep telling them and myself that its our way of helping people during this time."
It’s a grueling job, with Shaikh's daily shifts sometimes stretching 16 hours. Responding to an urgent call demands that his ambulance makes its way through Mumbai's notoriously heavy traffic and narrow streets.
Often the patients he and his two co-workers have to carry by stretcher to their ambulance live in high-rise buildings with no elevators. Mumbai's relentless heat and humidity make the work all the more physically draining.
But “the real ordeal starts when we reach the hospital,” Shaikh said.
Sometimes he has to wait up to five hours outside a hospital for intensive care unit beds to free up. Other times he gets yelled at by doctors who blame him and his team for bringing in patients without first checking in with the hospital. Most of the time he ends up shuffling between hospitals before a patient is finally admitted.
“There have been instances when the patient just doesn’t survive the long waiting hours,” Shaikh said. “Driving a patient who was alive to the hospital and then driving the same patient a few hours later to his burial or cremation is the hardest part.”
But sometimes there are good days.
Only a few weeks ago, he drove an 80-year-old woman who had the coronavirus to a hospital. Once she recovered, it was Shaikh who drove her back home.
He said he was welcomed home that day by his family and neighbors with fanfare.
As his phone buzzed again on a recent evening, he wrote down the details of the caller.
It was time.
Shaikh donned his hazmat suit and climbed up to the ambulance's driver’s seat, all set to pick up his next patient.
“I know I’ll get there in time,” he said, zooming away.