He Hoped He Could Get His Mom A Vaccine. Then Came The Call: She Had COVID

Feb 28, 2021
Originally published on March 1, 2021 9:44 am

When the pandemic first hit, Hitesh Hurkchand had one overriding concern: How do I protect my mother?

Hurkchand lives in Boston. His mother, Thulja, was in South Africa. She was a widow, living at an assisted living facility. And she had diabetes, hypertension, and heart issues.

Thinking about how hard it was going to be to keep Thulja safe, Hurkchand would fall into bouts of despair. "Oh my god, I mean it was like every other day," he recalls.

But Hurkchand happened to have deep experience in a very relevant field: He's an epidemiologist by training and an expert on setting up pharmaceutical supply chains in low- and middle-income countries.

So Hurkchand threw himself into a series of coronavirus logistics projects for Africa with his employer, the United Nations World Food Program. This was how he was going to cope with his anxiety over his mother.

"I was doing things at a macro level — but in the hope of getting things right so that one day I could just get on the plane and go back and see her," says Hurkchand.

The first mission was helping the World Food Program get protective gear to Africa.

Every day at 5 a.m. he'd take calls with officials. Then he'd call his mother — and plead with her to keep up precautions just a while longer.

"Basically telling my mother, 'Please wear a mask. The vaccines are coming.' "

Thulja would tell Hurkchand that she knew what he was doing was important — even if she didn't understand all the details.

"My mum grew up very poor — extremely poor," says Hurkchand. "She didn't make it past elementary school. She wasn't allowed to go to school."

But all her life Thulja had this irrepressible spirit.

Blocked from education she channeled her energy into becoming an incredible home cook. Her speciality was a red bean dish from her Gujarati Indian heritage.

"It's very savory and spicy," says Hurkchand. "And with naan or rice it's just amazing."

She made sure all four of her children got college degrees.

And says Hurkchand, "She had this incredible faith in a higher power." Over and over he says she'd tell him, "Don't worry. It's going to be okay. I'm going to be okay."

But by summer the situation was looking more dire than ever. Thulja fell and broke her hip. Almost as soon as she recovered, she fractured her arm.

"She was immobilized, in a wheelchair," says Hurkchand. "I was just waiting for that phone call to come from the facility where she was [saying] that she's got COVID. I was on standby to receive a phone call every night. You can imagine how tense that is."

Meanwhile it was becoming clear that it might take months and even years for his mother to get a vaccine. Even though multiple COVID-19 vaccines were in development, wealthy countries had pre-ordered so many initial doses, there were few left for African countries.

Hurkchand would get these wild fantasies for how to help Thulja. "I had this thought that I would go over there and like, you know, sneak in a vaccine from the United States and give it to her," he says with a rueful laugh.

Instead Hurkchand launched into a variety of efforts to get Africa vaccines. He started working with the World Food Programme on a project to build out cold-chain storage in poor countries. And he became an unpaid adviser to the African Union — helping it start an unprecedented bid to buy vaccines directly.

By new year's eve, Hurkchand was starting to feel optimistic. The African Union's negotiations with vaccine makers were progressing. His mother was still COVID-free.

Then on Jan. 3, at 1 a.m., Hurkchand got the call he'd been dreading. Thulja had tested positive.

He raced into action. "Just making desperate phone calls to, you know, see if we could get her access to an ICU," he recalls.

But South Africa was in the throes of a COVID surge — fueled by a new, seemingly more infectious variant. An ambulance drove Thulja from hospital to hospital. But there were no beds available.

Within three days, Thulja was gone. She was 76.

Hurkchand is still coming to terms.

"I worked so hard. I worked so hard," he says, "to make sure that we could get stuff right for South Africa.

"But I couldn't solve this for my mother."

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The world's richest countries bought nearly all the early doses of the COVID-19 vaccines even before the vaccines were approved. As we've been reporting, some less wealthy countries, including many in Africa, are struggling to make sure they're not left out. For one expert, the effort is intensely personal. NPR's Nurith Aizenman reports.

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: When the pandemic first hit, Hitesh Hurkchand had one overriding concern. How do I protect my mother? He'd fall into these bouts of despair.

HITESH HURKCHAND: Oh, my God. It was - I mean, I - it was, like, every other day.

AIZENMAN: Hurkchand lives in Boston. His mother, Thulja, was in South Africa, a widow living at an assisted living facility. She also had diabetes, hypertension, heart issues.

HURKCHAND: Yeah. So she had a suite of health problems.

AIZENMAN: But Hurkchand happened to have deep experience in a very relevant field. He's an epidemiologist and expert on setting up pharmaceutical supply chains in low- and middle-income countries. So Hurkchand threw himself into a series of coronavirus logistics projects for Africa. This was how he was going to cope with his anxiety over his mother.

HURKCHAND: I was doing things at a macro level, but in the hope that - to get things right and one day I could just get on the plane and go back and see her.

AIZENMAN: He worked with his employer, the United Nations World Food Program, on getting protective gear to Africa. Then when it became clear that the world could not be relied on to ensure Africa got its fair share of vaccines, Hurkchand took on a second, unpaid role, advising the African Union on how to buy vaccines directly. Every day at 5 a.m., he'd take calls with those officials. And he'd call his mother.

HURKCHAND: You know, telling my mother, like, please, wear mask. And, you know, the vaccines are coming.

AIZENMAN: And Thulja, his mother, she knew what Hurkchand was doing was important, even if she didn't understand all the details.

HURKCHAND: My mom grew up very poor, extremely poor. She didn't make it past, like, elementary school. She wasn't allowed to go to school.

AIZENMAN: But all her life, Thulja had this irrepressible spirit. Blocked from education, she channeled her energy into becoming an incredible home cook. Her specialty was this red bean dish from her Gujarati Indian heritage.

HURKCHAND: It's very savory and spicy. And with, like, naan or rice, it's just amazing.

AIZENMAN: Also, says Hurkchand...

HURKCHAND: You know, she had this incredible faith in a higher power.

AIZENMAN: As the months went by, over and over again, she'd tell her, Hurkchand, don't worry. It's going to be OK. I'm going to be OK. By New Year's Eve, Hurkchand was starting to believe it. The African Union's negotiations with vaccine makers were progressing. His mother was still COVID-free. Then, on January 3, at 1 a.m., Hurkchand got the call he'd been dreading. Thulja had tested positive. He raced to help.

HURKCHAND: Desperate phone calls to, you know, see if we could get her access to a hospital.

AIZENMAN: But South Africa was in the throes of a COVID surge. Hospital after hospital turned her away. No beds. Within three days, Thulja was gone. She was 76. Hurkchand is still coming to terms.

HURKCHAND: I worked so hard. I worked so hard to make sure that we could get stuff right for South Africa.

AIZENMAN: But, he says, I couldn't solve this for my mother.

Nurith Aizenman, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANGUS MACRAE'S "CRY WOLF") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.