When Rajendra Saboo finished his term as president of Rotary International in 1992, he started thinking about how he could continue to help people. And by 1998, after serving as Rotary Foundation trustee chair, he knew he wanted to do something hands-on.
“When I was Rotary president, my theme was Look Beyond Yourself,” says Saboo, a member of the Rotary Club of Chandigarh, India. “I was thinking about service beyond borders. So I thought, ‘Is there anything that India can give?’ I realised that medical science in India is fairly advanced, and there are doctors — Rotarian doctors — who could give something to Africa, where the medical needs are tremendous.”
Saboo talked to Nandlal Parekh, a fellow Rotarian and a physician who had worked in Uganda before being forced out by dictator Idi Amin. Parekh thought Uganda, even though it was still in the midst of a civil war, would be an excellent place for a medical mission. The trip that Saboo organised in 1998 was the start of 20 years of medical missions and over 67,000 surgeries.
Earlier, I couldn’t stand the sight of blood. But that day I saw blood and nothing happened to me. That changed me totally.
— PRIP Rajendra Saboo
To accompany him on that first trip, Saboo assembled a team of surgeons with experience performing corrective surgery on patients with polio, as well as a team of ophthalmologists. Then, a few days before they were scheduled to depart, terrorists bombed the U S embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing hundreds of people. A third attack, in the Ugandan capital of Kampala, was foiled.
“We were terrified,” he says. “The doctors were also saying, ‘Should we go? Will we be safe?’ ”
Then Saboo’s wife, Usha, talked to a woman who had returned from volunteering to help people wounded in the war in the former Yugoslavia. Usha asked her if she had been afraid.
“You die only once,” the woman replied. “And it is the way you die that matters. I did not find any fear at the time, because I was serving humanity.”
“That answer hit Usha,” recalls Saboo. “She told me about it. Then we called a meeting where she recounted her conversation. The doctors and the volunteers said, ‘We are ready to go.’ ”
They arrived three days after the bombings. From Kampala, one team took a bus four hours east to Masaka, while another went north to Gulu to perform eye surgery. The local hospital hadn’t seen an ophthalmologist in seven years. Some of the old women danced after their eye surgery because they had never seen their grandchildren.
Saboo, who has no medical training himself, got squeamish when he saw blood. But the team needed all the volunteers to pitch in — by washing the dirty feet of children in preparation for surgery, loading patients on stretchers, helping to start the IV drips, and doing anything else that needed to be done.
“Madhav Borate, who was the leader of our medical mission, said, ‘Raja, change your clothes and come to the operating theatre. You have to hold the patient’s wrist while we are operating and monitor the pulse,’” Saboo recalls. “I said, ‘Madhav, are you mad? I can’t even stand seeing someone receiving an injection. I can’t stand the sight of blood. I would faint.’ ”
Borate recalls that day too. “The operating rooms were lacking in monitoring equipment, including a device called a pulse oximeter,” he says. “So we decided to train three Rotarians to feel the pulse of the patients and inform the anesthetist if it became too fast or too slow. We started referring to the volunteers as our pulse metres.”
“I saw blood,” says Saboo. “I saw everything, and nothing happened to me. That changed me totally.”
Immediately upon their return to India, the team members started planning their next trip, this time to Ethiopia, with additional specialists. The third year they went to Nigeria. In the 20 years since that first trip to Uganda, they’ve sent more than 500 volunteers to 43 countries, performed 67,000 surgeries, examined 250,000 patients, and received $2.4 million in grants from The Rotary Foundation and from districts in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and other countries. They’ve arranged for patients in Africa with complicated medical problems to be flown to India for treatment, and have conducted missions within India itself.
Last year, for the mission’s 20th anniversary, the team returned to Uganda. The country is wealthier and more peaceful now but still has many needs.
“The infrastructure and facilities at the hospital were much better, and the nursing staff was cooperative and helpful,” says Borate. “But there was still a severe shortage of supplies, instruments and equipment even for routine operations.”
Nonetheless, with the help of Rotarians and doctors from Uganda, the team performed 1,100 surgeries, including 440 eye operations, 452 dental procedures, 25 reconstructive surgeries, and 84 general surgeries.
“It is the greatest impact I have seen in my 22 years as a Rotarian,” says Emmanuel Katongole, past governor of District 9211 (Tanzania and Uganda). “To see so many people with such complex problems, queuing for days for operations, and to see the happiness on their faces. We’re still getting calls asking, ‘Where are the Indian doctors? Can they come back?’ ”
For 2019, Saboo has an even bigger goal. “Sam Owori, who was selected to be the 2018-19 RI president but who passed away in 2017, said to me, ‘Raja, during my year as president, I would like you to arrange a team of medical doctors to go to every district of Africa.’ I said, ‘I’ll try,’ ” he says.
“After Sam died, President Barry Rassin said to me, ‘Raja, let us see if we can fulfill the dream that Sam had.’ So now we are planning on that.”