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When tragedy spawned courage for Chhabra sisters

Dec/22/2021 / by ABHIJIT MASIH
The Chhabra Family
The Chhabra Family

Their father died within 12 days from being infected by the Delta variant of the coronavirus. This, during the worst months of the pandemic in India, during a complete lockdown, which restricted the family from performing the last rites, or even to say goodbye to their father, one last time. This is the story of two sisters, Shilpa Dulani and Sonia Chhabra, both born in India, and who work for a real estate company A&E out of their respective offices in New York City and in New Delhi. 

For the 12 days their father was ill, the sisters were constantly on calls on Facetime, trying to arrange medical assistance, oxygen cylinders and medication for him.  

Like many, Dulani and Chhabra, keep a separate clock in their homes set to the other’s time zone. That was a small inconsequential way to erase out the distance of miles between them.  

Dulani, living in New York City, relied on Chhabra to take care of her parents in India. 

Then, in the spring of 2021, the Delta variant ran through India like wildfire. All of a sudden there was a scarcity of the medical facilities, of doctors, and of beds in hospitals. India was in lockdown. 

Shilpa Dulani, Chhabra

Chhabra had taken every possible precaution to safeguard her parents from the virus. No one stepped out of the house, no one was allowed in. They even bought the groceries remotely, not a common practice in India. The precautions were necessary for the aged parents. Their father had not stepped out of the house since July of last year. Despite all the safety measures, he got infected. Twelve days later, he was dead.

In the midst of a tight lockdown, he could not be taken to a hospital or even a doctor. Besides, there was no treatment available, and hospital beds scarce. From her New York office, Dulani shared the ordeal of the two sisters.

“Those two weeks or so, we did not sleep at all,” she says. “Sonia and I would talk every two hours, checking on my father. Every time, we chatted, Sonia would inform me about someone’s passing. There was no time to even mourn or cry for those that we knew because our focus was on our father and on those who we could save.” 

Dulani tears up, talking about her father’s passing, 

“He was gone. Gone to the extent that we couldn’t even perform the last rites for our father,” she says. “There was a waiting period of four days at the crematoriums.” The A&E staff used their personal connections to secure a place in the crematorium for their father’s cremation. 

In the midst of their own personal turmoil, the two sisters had to consider the A&E team in India. Many of its members were young and dealing with infections in their own families.

From her parent’s home in India, Chhabra recalls the grim situation back in April, 

“The biggest requirement at that point of time was to get oxygen cylinders and oxymeters,” she says. “The ordeal of sourcing them and then to reach them to the team members during curfew was a major challenge.” 

Bottling their own grief, the two sisters helped their team. They organized the delivery of equipment, providing instructions on how to use it, mobilized friends and contacts to arrange for oxygen concentrators and hospitalizations, and requested doctors in the family to provide virtual consultancy. 

There were many challenges, including exorbitant premiums being applied on every medicine and equipment. Chhabra shares one incident which portrays the helplessness:

“There was the problem of defective oxygen cylinders. In one team member’s case, his father was on oxygen and the cylinder leaked. His father died in his arms.” 

Helpless in New York, Dulani used her connections to facilitate services and equipment for Chhabra on the ground. Chhabra planned and managed the inventory of equipment and made it available in different parts of Delhi and the adjoining areas. 

Chhabra family

“Sonia used to give me an update on the daily spends that were being incurred, and I told her not to think about the cost and to do whatever it takes,” Dulani says.

In the aftermath of their own personal loss, Dulani and Chhabra worked through A&E to personally organize a major relief effort in New Delhi out of A&E’s offices, using the company’s connections in NYC and India. They purchased medicines, located and shipped home-use oxygen concentrators, and sourced and distributed oxygen tanks. They set up COVID testing, free virtual doctor consultations and provided emergency health insurance to employees. 

They had a deep sense of purpose to try to save every life they could, even after having lost their own father. 

Dulani regrets not being able to call that fateful night because she was reeling from the side effects of taking her second vaccine shot. 

She mournfully recalls, “Usually I would call Sonia every two hours. That was the only night that I did not call and did not check up on my father.” 

Like the two sisters, everyone had to deal with some variant of this tragedy. The grimness of the situation touched almost everyone in some way or the other. 

Yet, these two sisters soldiered on and perhaps did for many what they could not do for their own dad.


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