36-year-old Seetha Devi is helping many breathe. Rechristened Chennai's 'Oxygen Woman', Ms Devi lost her mother to Covid. Since then, she took up the responsibility to help people who need oxygen. Her blue auto-rickshaw, fitted with an oxygen cylinder, has been a lifesaver for many. She waits outside the Rajiv Gandhi Hospital offering refuge to patients in need of oxygen till they got a bed.
Often, she also lends her cylinder to ambulances with patients that ran out of oxygen.
"We saved more than three hundred patients gasping for breath that time, no questions were asked, no money was received," says Seetha Devi about the deadly second wave when hospitals in Chennai were short of oxygen and beds with serpentine queues of ambulances waiting with critical patients.
A daughter of a porter who grew up on the streets of Chennai is now a social worker helping street children with education. It is a personal loss that triggered Seetha to serve Covid patients through her 'oxygen auto'.
She had lost her 65-year-old mother R Vijaya on May 1 for want of oxygen. They struggled for around 12 hours through the night in ambulances at the Rajiv Gandhi Medical College Hospital. Though she got a bed with a ventilator at the Stanley Hospital later, it was too late. She died after five hours.
This is when she decided to offer lifesaving oxygen through her auto at the same place where her mother struggled for breath. Ms Devi added, "After my mother died, I decided none should die for want of oxygen. Now there is an urgent need for oxygen. It's the decision I took that day".
Sharing how the oxygen auto helped her elderly mother get stabilised before medical help, one woman said, "We have been struggling for oxygen since the previous day but we could not get it. We could not get an ambulance though they said it would come in two or three hours. We suffered a lot. Thank you so much. We will not forget this".
Though the oxygen crisis is over at hospitals for the last few weeks, Ms Devi continues to help discharged patients requiring oxygen support to get back home. She also helps with the transport of patients from the hospital to Covid care centres. She has bought a few more cylinders and oxygen concentrators to help those being treated at home.
In Chennai's Anna Nagar area, Vignesh's father is back home after in hospital for a month. The family is in financial distress after spending around Rs 2 lakh on treatment during the peak crisis time. Ms Devi has given them an oxygen concentrator and a cylinder for free to make sure nothing would go wrong for his father.
"They are life saviours for us to be honest. We can't afford to buy at this time two lakhs or a lakh and sixty-five thousand for a concentrator. Before that, I was paying per day ₹1,000 every day for a concentrator, it has been like twelve or fifteen thousand," Mr Vignesh added.
While the second wave shook up the health care system and lefts hundreds gasping for breath, Seetha Devi has continued to provide timely oxygen intervention so many could have a second chance at life.