When I completed my responsibilities as Rotary International president and chairman of The Rotary Foundation, Usha and I thought that now it was time for us to involve ourselves in hands-on service, an idea I had exhorted to Rotarians — “Look Beyond Yourself”.
Observing the immense needs of Africa, we decided to go to Uganda in early August 1998. Aware of the knowledge and expertise of our Indian doctors and surgeons, we finalised two specialties, eye and polio-corrective surgeries. When we were all set to leave, a very disturbing news came of bomb blasts in Kenya and Tanzania, and there was an apprehension that Uganda would be next. The message we got from doctors and friends was that we shouldn’t take the risk. Then one evening Usha met a young lady, Shanti, who had served as a peace mission volunteer in Croatia war and had seen landmine blasts, gun fights and killings. Usha asked her, “Are you not scared to be in a place where life is at risk every moment?” Shanti smiled and said, “Not at all. We all have only one life to live. Living it meaningfully is all that matters to me.”
We got our message. Our spirits got uplifted and our team was ready to move.
The team comprising eight doctors and two of us departed on schedule to Kampala. We were eagerly looking forward to the adventure of service. Since Uganda had meagre resources, our team was carrying medicines, lenses and equipment. We carried excess baggage on flight to Kampala.
From there doctors S P S Grewal and Uma Pradhan, ophthalmologist surgeons, flew on a small aircraft to Gulu, an insurgency-ravaged area. All the lenses could not be carried on the flight. So some were sent by road transport, and were stolen in transit. The lens, which surgeons carried with them, were used for cataract and other eye surgeries. The orthopaedic team, including us as volunteers, moved to Masaka by road on a bus with wooden seats. It took us over three hours to reach our destination. We had a very modest place to stay but we were least concerned. Upon arrival we went to the government hospital to see the operation theatre and examine children for polio-corrective surgeries. Next day, early morning we had to clean the children prior to surgery. Most children had severe deformities, which made them crawl on dirty, dusty, uneven grounds. We would start cleaning them but there was no soap, hot water, buckets, mugs or towels.
In tune with the adage ‘where there is a will, there is a way’, we managed everything. We washed the cracked and hardened, dirt-embedded little feet. While washing the legs of children and preparing them for the orthopaedic corrective surgery suddenly it struck Usha that it was August 11, my birthday. The fact that we were celebrating this day in such a special way was overwhelming for both of us.
The surgeons started the operations. Even though there were limited facilities, our work never stopped. Suddenly Dr Madhav Borate called me to be in the operation theatre. I was hesitant as I was squeamish about the sight of blood but there was no choice. I saw a lot of blood, flesh, bones but I did not faint. From then on I developed the strength to help surgeons in OT.
We stayed 10 days completing the task, treating patients and training the local doctors. The hope and trust of the people we served was our biggest strength. We volunteers were humbled to see the untiring work put in by our doctors.
We decided to continue the medical missions. Many more doors opened in Africa. We got more than 40 children from Rwanda, Nigeria and Uganda for heart surgery to Chandigarh.
Having worked beyond borders in African and Asian countries we realised the need within our country. Thus from 2006 we started the medical missions within India in deprived or risky areas such as Kalahandi, the tribal areas of Mandla, the Jagdalpur Naxal region, Dimapur in Nagaland, and Udhampur in Jammu.
There were many touching stories that came my way. Dr P S Chari, the competent plastic surgeon, was able to reconstruct the face of a man who was bitten by a ferocious pet dog, which became a huge success story in Malawi. In Madagascar, Dr R S Parmar, while doing laparoscopy, used a blood pressure pump in the absence of CO2 gas on a patient and completed the surgery. Dr N S Sandhu, a versatile surgeon, operated on many infants with problems such as hernia in Madagascar, and supported Dr Anju Huria in doing complicated vesico strokes ureteric original fistula. Dr Hemant Batra supported by Jagat Bhusan, dental surgeons, performed operation on a child who could not open his mouth since birth (TMJ ankylosis). Dr Ravjit Singh, an orthopaedic surgeon, operated upon an adolescent boy with post rickets bow on both sides and corrected the deformity of four long bones in both legs.
A three-year-old boy in Uganda who had lost his eyelids in accidental burns was heading towards blindness when he was rehabilitated by Dr V D Singh, a plastic surgeon. His eyelids were reconstructed and he was saved from blindness. In Rwanda, Dr Karan Singh removed a big abdominal wall tumour weighing over 5kg while also repairing the abdominal walls.
In these last 23 years, we have done 48 medical missions at home and abroad. Nearly, 66,000 surgeries and procedures have been performed to bring relief to nearly 260,000 people. Eye surgeries and IOL implants were done on nearly 7,000 persons abroad. Over 5,000 people benefited from eye surgeries in India. But these numbers don’t tell the entire story. The healing hands of our surgeons, anesthesiologists, dermatologists and others have transformed countless lives.
Many times I have been asked the cost of such projects. My reply has always been the same — can you put a price on the time, money and comfort sacrificed by the doctors? Or on their labour of love for the patients they served. This is the story of a tiny seed sown in 1998, which grew into a mighty tree of health and healing to serve humanity.
The writer is past Rotary International president
©The Indian Express