The little figure walked up to the podium at the International Assembly to admit in all humility that she had no big degrees or professional qualifications to address such a “distinguished gathering of past, present and incoming Rotary leaders.” But she stood there as a “victim of RIPE Ravi’s power for persuasion.”
With these simple words Usha Saboo, spouse of PRIP Rajendra K Saboo, held her own and drew huge rounds of applause while recalling the efforts she had put in bringing smiles, cheer, hope and health in the lives of children and adults across the world.
Re-creating the “continuous flow of images of people young and old, ailing and crawling, hopelessly needy people,” whose lives she had touched thanks to the opportunities provided by Rotary, Usha gave the audience a glimpse into the medical missions conducted by Indian Rotarians not only in India but several African countries as well.
At the outset she admitted: “When Rotary came into my life, I was not prepared for it. I had two very young children to look after. When Raja became Club President I became hostile and constantly complained, argued and nagged.” But all this changed when she took her bitterness to her spiritual guru and came away with this advice: “Look around and see how the world is broken and torn with suffering and strife. Change your attitude, and convert this obstacle into an opportunity.”
Slowly her vision widened from “mine to ours, I to we.” The defining moment was the day in the market when she accidentally stepped over a bundle of rags only to discover Basappa, a terribly disfigured leprosy patient, “in great agony, with mutilated hands and feet and leaking wounds.” Arresting her impulse to run away, she apologised and stayed behind to find there were hundreds of them in Chandigarh, “with no hope, begging during the day and spending the nights on roads, under trees, in rain and cold.”
Badly jolted, she shared the story the next morning with Saboo, who immediately convened a meeting of his club to plan a strategy to help these patients. For years, this project remained her priority and today “their children are going to schools and their residential colony is a place of pride in our town,” she said amidst applause.
A few years ago she got a request from Mother Teresa’s organisation for funds to help the heart surgery of Suresh, a child. Even though fund collection began immediately, he passed away before they could help. “This tragedy shook our conscience, and Raja and I promoted a heart surgery project (Rotary Heartline) for poor children.”
Starting from 1998, so far over 526 free congenital cardiac corrective surgeries have been done on children from India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uganda, Nepal and Rwanda.
A special moment was being greeted by some of these children and their parents at the airport during a recent visit to Rwanda. “On the happy faces of those kids I saw the imprint of Rotary. They won’t remember our names, but most certainly they remember the one important name — Rotary,” she said.
After Saboo was done with his “RI responsibilities, we decided to dedicate some of our time and resources for hands on service. In 1991–92 (when he was RI President) Look beyond yourself was just a theme, but our journey on this path started in 1998 when we took our first medical mission to Uganda,” she recalled.
Many Rotarians in India questioned them “Why Africa?” when so much needs to be done in India. “Our simple answer: Africa because we want to reach out to our larger human family … and erase man made barriers.”
Over 17 years, the couple has organised 13 medical missions to over a dozen countries, changing countless lives. Through these missions children have walked after polio corrective surgeries, vision has been restored, plastic surgeons have given new faces to victims of the most inhuman Rwanda genocide, and dignity restored to abused and neglected African women with torn genitals and uterine tumours weighing upto 10–12 kg. “Our Rotarian surgeons have performed miracles and restored dignity to their lives, generating unlimited smiles … and restoring the faith of young and old in the generosity of human spirit and the power of love,” said Usha.
These medical missions comprise 30–35 doctors, including surgeons from 5–6 specialities and “non-medical volunteers such as Raja and me.”
The discomforts include long and tedious journeys, heavy loads of equipment and medicines, minimal stay, food and local transport. “Yet our surgeons innovate methods to overcome deficiencies and perform intricate surgeries, sometimes using double or triple gloves for protection against HIV/AIDS. Each of us is a bridge between pain and happiness, and an ambassador of goodwill and peace, a messenger of light and love.”
Simply and yet effectively, Usha described her own role in these missions. “I am a mother when pacifying a crying child, a nurse when assisting the doctors in bandaging or giving medicines to patients, a waiter while serving coffee to the team members or food to the attendants of patients.” But what she enjoys the most and “lose myself in, are their smiles … discovering myself again and again. It’s a barter; each time I go, I leave a part of myself and bring back beautiful memories from each visit.”
Usha added that these visits and work within India on Rotary projects has taught her lessons of patience, tolerance and gratitude, the power of love and above all to smile, saying “Hakuna Matata” (Swahili phrase meaning ‘no problem’). These lessons can’t be learnt from books or classrooms.
Make TRF stronge
Striking a personal and poignant note, she said, “After seeing the badly disfigured faces of genocide victims in Rwanda, I am no longer conscious of the leukoderma patches on my own face and body.
I count my blessings and realise how fortunate I am to have a healthy body.” But then these service activities could happen only because of Rotarians’ contributions to TRF. India became polio-free “thanks to your generosity, and a polio-free world will become a reality due to our continuous giving. If Rotary is to become a world-power in hope and healing, a strong TRF will be needed to add more muscle to our caring hands and loving hearts.”
She left the international audience from over 200 countries with a powerful message on the real essence of communication. When at one of their medical missions in Ethiopia, Martin, a five-year-old polio patient, was asked by a doctor how he communicated with Usha as he knew no English, the child replied: “Oh, that’s so easy, Ma’am always smiles in my language.”