Last July, a 50-year-old Patna resident spent a week in hospital battling covid-19. His recovery inspired him to start a mission to provide free oxygen to the needy. Gaurav Rai, now known as Bihar’s ‘Oxygen Man’, has since saved over 1,400 lives across the state by providing oxygen cylinders free of cost to critically ill patients in home isolation.
Rai’s oxygen bank at his Patna home has proved to be lifesaver for many patients, particularly at a time when the second wave of the virus has battered Bihar, which has over 69,000 active cases and 3,900 deaths as of 18 May. He has provided 870 oxygen cylinders in the past few weeks when most hospitals have been turning away patients owing to severe shortage of oxygen and beds.
Sakchi Raj, a Class 12 student in Patna, remembers that her cousin found Rai’s number on Facebook. Her father, an executive engineer with the Bihar government, was in dire need of oxygen after he contracted covid-19 in October. Rai supplied them oxygen cylinder, free, for an entire month. “My father recovered with his timely help and is well now. We are still in touch with Gauravji,” says Sakchi.
Rai, a general manager with a private company, and his wife Aruna operate an oxygen bank which has about 150 cylinders of 10kg each. “I was admitted to Patna Medical College & Hospital last July after testing positive. I realized how a small oxygen cylinder could save a life. I told my wife that I would pay it forward if I survived,” says Rai.
Once back home, he started the initiative in July 2020 with just three oxygen cylinders. He funded it with part of his salary and financial help from his wife, friends and relatives. Over time, he built up his stock of cylinders, and got a massive shot when Bihar Foundation donated 200 oxygen cylinders in September 2020.
Gopal Sinha, a Patna-based regional manager of a private company, says Rai helped them when his wife’s oxygen levels had dropped to 58 and they had lost all hope. “We cannot forget him. My wife is alive because of him. I used his cylinders for three weeks but he never asked for them,” recalls Sinha.
Earlier, Rai would deliver the oxygen cylinders in his own car to patients across the city, and demonstrate how to use it. Now that demand has shot up, he requests people to collect the cylinders from his house. “We send them a video of how to operate and use it,” he says. In the mornings, he gives away cylinders to those who land up at his house but always keeps 7-8 oxygen cylinders in his Wagon-R for emergency supply during the day. He often responds to calls while he’s at work, and his employer is understanding enough to give him time off to make the deliveries, he says.
“I spend ₹20,000 from my salary every month on this, but I am happy as long I am able to serve those in despair,” said Rai who gets each cylinder filled for just ₹100 from a compassionate Kumar Enterprises in Patna.
Dealing with people who misuse or refuse to return cylinders has become a problem but Rai is carrying on. “I have not got back 27 cylinders. Many cylinders are returned with damaged flow meters. A new flow meter costs ₹5,000 now in Patna,” said Rai. To prevent people from hoarding free supplies, he’s now started verifying patient details, insisting on a doctor’s prescription and asking people to deposit a driving licence or ID card before giving away oxygen cylinders. This ensures only patients in dire need get cylinders and that they are returned after use.
His cylinders have helped patients in 21 districts, including Buxar, Siwan, Gopalganj, Gaya, Arwal, Motihari, Jehanabad, Hajipur, Nalanda, Begusarai and Madhepura.
Pooja, an HR executive in a company in Delhi, had to return to her hometown of Biharsharif near Patna when her father, a college professor, contracted the virus. “We were told that my father needed oxygen support when he was discharged from IGIMS Patna. We searched desperately for a supplier and everybody was trying to fleece us," she says. "A friend’s brother told us about Gaurav Raiji. He immediately provided us oxygen cylinder free of cost. We’re so grateful.”
Rahul Nandan is the co-founder of Antardwani, a Bengaluru-based think tank focussed on health and education.