NEW DELHI — Pradeep Kumar, a muscular man in shades and tattoos, pulls up on a motorcycle, ready for his job as a bouncer. Not at a nightclub, but at another workplace where violence is common in India: a hospital.
He and his burly colleagues keep the emergency and labor rooms from filling up with patients' often agitated relatives and friends. The bouncers are polite, yet so tough-looking that people think twice about ignoring their orders.
"These guys look like they walked right out of an action movie," said Pawan Desai, who brought his 4-year-old daughter to Deen Dayal Upadhyay Hospital for treatment for a cut on her hand.
Working in an Indian hospital can be dangerous. In April, a week before DDU hired the bouncers, friends of an emergency-room patient punched a doctor in the face and broke his nose before going on a rampage with hockey sticks, swinging at windows, lights, furniture and medical staff.
The medical staff at DDU, a government hospital, had faced nearly one attack a month and had gone on strike 20 times over six years demanding better security. Since the hospital replaced its middle-aged, pot-bellied guards with bar bouncers, bodyguards, and wrestlers sporting muscles and tattoos, "there hasn't been a single incident," said Dr. Nitin Seth, the doctor who was injured in April.
"These guys do a good job controlling the crowds," he said.
Thousands of attacks occur in Indian hospitals every year, said Dr. Narendra Saini, spokesman for the Indian Medical Association.
In January, a man in the southern city of Chennai was charged with using a sword to hack to death a surgeon he held responsible for his pregnant wife's death during surgery. Three months later, a mob at a Delhi hospital beat up six doctors in retaliation for supposed sexual misconduct after the medical staff unsuccessfully tried to resuscitate a female patient using CPR.
When someone dies in the hospital, relatives often start blaming — even attacking — doctors. At expensive private hospitals, families feel especially cheated, Saini said. "They expect their patient to live because that's what they paid for."
The DDU Hospital guards, a team of 21 split across three shifts, cover the busiest areas of the campus, especially the emergency and labor rooms.
People who come in with pregnant or trauma patients "are most likely to lose their cool," Kumar said. "That's why we try not to let in more than one per patient."
The only way to prevent a bad situation from getting worse is to keep people moving and not let crowds collect at all, said Dr. Promila Gupta, the hospital's medical superintendent. "I think what works for our new guards is that the (patients') relatives are afraid of them because of their good physique," she said.
Despite the tough image, Kumar and the other guards are a soft-spoken bunch. "We don't let anyone in unless they need to be there, and we know how to be polite about it," he said.
"First we talk nice," said bouncer Amarjeet Singh. "If they don't listen, troublemakers are taken to the Casualty Medical Officer's room to sort things out, and if that doesn't work, police from the nearby post are called in to get them evicted.
"In any case, we are not allowed to rough anyone up," he added.
Few Indian hospitals can afford this kind of security. The generally overcrowded and understaffed government facilities often don't even have the resources they need to save lives, said Dr. Saini of the Indian Medical Association.
Dr. Prithvi Madhok, a former surgeon at some of Mumbai's top hospitals, has studied the rash of doctor assaults in India and said hiring better security will not solve the underlying problem.
"As a society, we are just not trained to be patient. We don't wait for our turn, or let things go through their due process," he said.
Madhok said patients or their attendants turn violent because they think they can get away with it. Attacking a doctor might be a serious crime, "but in my several years of practice, I have never seen anyone get booked for it," he said.
Seth, the DDU doctor, is glad that the new guards are serving as a deterrent.
"These guys save lives too," he said. "Just as doctors here are always ready to save a patient, these bouncers are here to save us doctors."