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The Pandemic

Memphis physicians mobilize to help india fight covid-19

Drs. Ronak Naik (from left, at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital), Amit Lahoti and Samir Shah are all leaders of the MidSouth Initiative To Raise Assistance (MITRA) for Indian COVID Relief. Mitra is a Sanskrit word for friend.(Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphian)

A group of Memphis-area Indian immigrants, most of them physicians, is trying to help COVID-ravaged India catch its breath.

The group raised nearly $30,000 in two days to help fill a cargo plane with more than 100 life-sustaining oxygen concentrators.

The Air India plane flew from New York City to Delhi Wednesday to deliver the expensive machines, along with 500 pulse oximeters.

“People are dying for lack of equipment and supplies that are plentiful here,” said Dr. Amit Lahoti, a leader of the MidSouth Initiative To Raise Assistance (MITRA) for Indian COVID Relief. Mitra is a Sanskrit word for friend.

MITRA was formed here on the fly Friday, April 30, to aid another Indian disaster-relief organization,  opens in a new windowDoctorsForYou-USA in New York City. Lahoti, who worked there before moving to Memphis six years ago, is a member.

“The response has been overwhelming and gratifying,” said Lahoti, a Memphis pediatric endocrinologist at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. “We are not going to stop. We can’t.”

India is reporting about 350,000 cases of COVID-19 and more than 3,000 related deaths a day.

That’s almost double the number of cases and deaths Shelby County has experienced during the entire pandemic.

“It’s painful to watch. It’s heartbreaking,” said Dr. Manoj Jain, the infectious disease expert who has been advising Memphis on its COVID-19 response.

“Every single person of Indian origin in Memphis knows a person in India who is very sick or has died,” said Jain, another MITRA leader. “Literally every day we’re getting a message that someone we know has died.”

The growing crisis in India, triggered in part by a new double-mutant variant of the coronavirus, the B1617 or Indian variant, has crippled the nation’s health care system, especially in larger cities.

Supplies of oxygen, steroids and other medicines, and personal protective equipment, are running out.

There aren’t enough hospital beds, physicians and nurses, medicines, equipment and supplies to handle the tsunami of critically ill patients.

Patients are dying on sidewalks and streets as they wait outside hospitals.

Crematoriums are running out of space. Workers in the capital Delhi have built makeshift funeral pyres in parks and cut down trees for firewood.

Hindus believe the body must be destroyed to force the soul to separate, so cremation is the most important part of the funeral rites.

Smayan Sompalli

The tragic scenes are breaking hearts across Memphis.

“I kept watching the news, seeing all these deaths, seeing mass cremations in the streets,” said Smayan Sompalli, a sophomore at Houston High. “I thought even five dollars could save someone’s life there.”

Last weekend, Smayan started a  opens in a new windowGoFundMe campaign to raise money for  opens in a new windowOxfam India, an organization providing vaccines, masks and other supplies. By Wednesday, he’d raised nearly $5,000.

Smayan, the son of Indian immigrants who have lived in Memphis more than 20 years, was worried about people he saw on the TV screen.

He was especially worried about his 70-year-old grandmother, who tested positive for COVID-19 right after she got her second vaccine dose.

“We think she caught it at the vaccine site,” said Smita Sompalli, Smayan’s mother. “The government opened a mass vaccine site for everyone. There were long lines. It was just a mess.”

Smayan’s grandmother, who lives in a small town, is receiving steroid treatments and recovering, even though she was unable to get a hospital bed.

“She was the last person we thought would get the virus,” Smita said. “She did everything right, followed all the protocols. It caught Smayan off-guard. Raising this money is his way of coping and doing something to help.”

The overwhelming second wave of COVID-19 in India, also fueled by the B117 or UK variant, has raised concerns about another wave of cases in Memphis.

The UK variant,  opens in a new windowdiscovered in Shelby County in early February, is 50% more contagious than the original strain. It’s now responsible for nearly all COVID-19 cases here, Jain said.

The  opens in a new windowfirst case of the Indian variant was identified in Shelby County last week. It was found in someone who had traveled to India. The Indian variant carries features of others, including those discovered in South Africa, Brazil and California.”

“We have only seen the one case, so far,” Jain said, “and we’re doing a good job of tracking it, but we must remain vigilant.”

The Shelby County Health Department, Memphis testing labs, hospitals and physicians are working to identify all variants here, and trace and isolate everyone who has been infected as well as their close contacts.

Jain said local labs are sequencing about 200 positive COVID-19 samples each week to search for  opens in a new windowvariants, or about 10% of the samples. By comparison, India has been sequencing about 1% of samples.

“We’re doing well but we can do better,” Jain said.

Local labs have the capacity to cast an even wider net for variants and sequence up to 500 samples a week. But that will require more testing. Earlier this year, Shelby County was testing up to 3,000 people a day. Lately, the numbers have fallen to about 1,200 a day.

“That scares me,” Jain said. “It’s entirely possible the variants are floating around out there undetected. I know people are so over this pandemic, and I understand. But we cannot be over this yet. There’s no reason to think we cannot go through the same thing India is going through.”

Lahoti and his colleagues say MITRA’s aims are to provide assistance by leveraging local support to:

  • Provide up-to-date information and protocols/ guidelines for COVID management to physicians in India.
  • Assist with delivery of essential equipment (O2 concentrators and other supplies) through collaboration with other non profit organizations active in COVID relief.
  • Support well-being of medical and paramedical staff to prevent burnout (physician suicides are unfortunately on the rise in India).
  • Advocacy for the diaspora of the Mid-South on improving vaccination rates and preventing disease transmission.

MITRA will keep working to send oxygen concentrators, as well as other equipment, supplies and medicines, to India.

Patients with COVID-19, a respiratory illness, often struggle to breath. The levels of oxygen in their blood can drop to life-threatening levels.

The air we breathe is about 20% oxygen.  opens in a new windowOxygen concentrators draw in atmospheric air and purify it, providing pure 100% oxygen to patients with low oxygen levels.

A typical oxygen concentrator can deliver pure oxygen to two patients at a time without stopping, raising lung capacity by nearly 30%.

“The recovery rate is actually pretty good there when patients have the equipment and medicines they need,” said Lahoti, whose uncle and best friends are physician in India.

“The problem is there are too many patients and not enough equipment. Patients are having to wait too long for care, and they are getting sicker and dying.”

Other local leaders of MITRA are Dr. Samir Shah at UTHSC, Dr. Ronak Naik, Dr. Namrata Shah and Dr. Vijay Agrawal at Le Bonheur, and Vijay Surpuriya at Methodist.

To find more information or to donate, contact MITRA at

This story first appeared at under an exclusive use agreement with The Institute. Photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.

Written By

David Waters is Distinguished Journalist in Residence and assistant director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

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