Dil ki baat … Indo-Pak style A moving saga of RC Calcutta South City Rotarians reaching out to a sick Pakistani teenager.

Kolkata Rotarians welcome Gulalai (head covered) and her parents.
Kolkata Rotarians welcome Gulalai (head covered) and her parents.

Indo-Pak relations couldn’t get a better PR opportunity than this. And for those in Rotary who have been talking about developing a stronger brand for this 110-year old organisation, this is the perfect story.

It has all the elements of a humanitarian and goodwill gesture, generosity, commitment, networking, drama, a little disappointment and lots of smiles and triumph. A Pakistani Pashtun girl from the Swat Valley, Syeda Gulalai Zahid, who has for a close friend Nobel Peace Laureate Malala Yousufzai, was born with a serious heart disorder. Her congenital condition was diagnosed as Pulmonary Atresia — the pulmonary valve in her right ventricle was shut. But call it nature’s intervention or “Allah’s meherbani” (grace), as her father Syed Zahid puts it, the girl has developed channels that manage to carry blood from the left side of the heart. “Big doctors have told me that it is this that has helped her remain alive, and happens only in one in a million,” he says.

There is not a single cardiac specialist in Pakistan I have not consulted. I am told that normally such children die within a year, but in my daughter’s case Allah enacted a miracle.

Last year on August 14, Rtn Tapas Mukherjee, Past President of the Rotary Club of Calcutta South City was excited to get a call from Manchester where the caller introduced himself as the father of Malala Yousufzai, who was yet to get the Nobel, but was anyway globally famous for the brave fight she had put up against the Taliban who had shot her in the head.

The Rotary connect

Ziauddin Yousufzai, a member of the Rotary Club of Mingora, Swat, before he shifted with his family to UK for Malala’s medical treatment and later education, told Mukherjee that his daughter had a request for him and the Rotarians of his club — medical treatment of Malala’s friend.

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“Then Malala came on the line and told me politely: ‘Uncle, can I request you for something; one of my friends is sick and requires help. Will you kindly arrange her treatment in India?’ ”

Without wasting any time Mukherjee got involved in Project Gulalai with great gusto. He immediately called PDG of District 3291, Utpal Majumdar, who took over the leadership role in helping the Pakistani teenager. An advocate by profession, he first roped in the multi- speciality Amri Hospital in Kolkata, which is one of his clients. “By that time Mukherjee had done a lot of correspondence with Yousufzai and President of the Rotary Club of Mingora in Swat, Fazalmaula Zahid, and we knew the girl required a complicated heart surgery. The hospital agreed to give all treatment and the room free of cost, except medicines which were very expensive. So we paid for them,” says Majumdar.

She shows her friends her pictures in India; and has got a new enthusiasm and confidence to get totally alright.

Next the External Affairs ­Ministry in India was contacted to organise visa for Gulalai’s family to travel to India. The girl and her family were given visa for 45 days. This March, crossing the Wagah border, Gulalai and her parents travelled from Lahore to Amritsar, then drove to Delhi and came to ­Kolkata by the Rajdhani Express. “We had organised a guest house for them. We picked them up from Howrah station, and took the girl straight to the Hospital and her parent were put up in a guest house we had organised,” says Majumdar.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Gulala’s father Zahil told Rotary News: “There is not a single cardiac specialist in Pakistan that I have not consulted over the years. I am told that normally such children with her condition die within a year, but in my daughter’s case Allah enacted a miracle.” Coming from a lower middle class family, Zahid works as a school teacher in Swat Valley and is a man of limited means, and couldn’t afford treatment outside Pakistan.

Gulalai delivers a speech on Malala Day in Swat Valley.
Gulalai delivers a speech on Malala Day in Swat Valley.

In medical terms, says Dr P K Hazra, Interventional Cardiologist at Amri, Gulalai was born with Pulmonary Atresia, a malformation, from birth, of the pulmonary valve in which the valve orifice fails to develop and the completely closed valve obstructs the outflow of blood from the heart to the lungs for oxygenation. But in Gulalai’s case, other heart channels have opened up carrying blood from the left side of the heart to the lungs. Investigations carried out at Amri included an angiogram and Cardiac Catheterisation, which had not been done in Pakistan. The paediatric Surgeon in the team, Dr C Pradhan, ruled out surgical intervention saying the risk was as high as 60 per cent against the 4–5 per cent risk that ordinary heart operations carry. He told Rotary News, “We decided that with some medicines Gulalai can lead a fairly normal life. She can go to school, walk up to 2 km, talk fluently, can have normal menstrual cycles and can even get married. But she can’t become pregnant as in her condition pregnancy is contra-indicated. We decided that taking a risk and possibly killing her on the table was not an option we should take,” says Dr Hazara.

As a member of Rotary Club Mingora, Swat, I appreciate the Kolkata Rotarians for their help in Gulalai’s treatment and am thankful they extended remarkable moral support and hospitality to her family.
– Ziauddin Yousafzai

While surgical intervention is too dangerous, what can really help Gulalai is a heart transplant which cannot be done in India. Majumdar, who with the help of Rotarians raised the money for the family’s stay and expenses in India — (“she was discharged from the hospital in four days but as the family had come for the first time to India and wanted to go around Kolkata, we organised city tours for them”) as well as the child’s treatment is already looking at the next step. “We know that a heart transplant in India is not possible, but it can be done in a US or UK Hospital. If one of those Rotary clubs comes forward to help Gulalai, we are ready to bear a part of the expenditure involved in her surgery,” he says.

So concerned he was about the child’s safe and comfortable return home that he even organised air tickets for the family’s flight from Kolkata to Delhi, and wanted to also send them to Lahore by air. But thanks to the complications in Indo-Pak relations, the entry and exit route of a Pakistani travelling to India, and vice versa, has to be the same.

So Gulalai returned home through the Wagah border and is back in school. But her father continues to worry about her. “She is very frail, doesn’t put on weight, her face is yellow and she gets tired easily. I am a school teacher and have four children and I can’t afford to take her to England or America. But if Rotary can help, my daughter can either be operated upon or get a heart transplant.”

Indebted to Rotary

Zahid talks about his Indian experience with gratitude and warmth. “The Rotarians in Kolkata took the best care of Gulalai and her treatment, and made us feel at home. I am so grateful to Rotarians because they made my daughter feel so important and gave her so much love.”

Addressing a meeting of RC Calcutta South City, he said “Hindustan or ­Pakistan ke logo mei koi farak nai hai. Only politics and extremists are dividing us.” He has now invited members of this club to visit Peshawar, and this invitation is under serious consideration!

Meanwhile back at home Gulalai is constantly talking about her India visit. Thanks to all the Rotarians giving her so much affection, she felt very respected and important. The result is that at home she can’t stop talking about her Indian experience to all her friends, says Zahid. “She shows them her pictures in India; with the doctors, the Rotarians. She has got a new enthusiasm … a new confidence to get totally alright. Next year I am planning to shift her from the present Urdu medium school to English medium because she wants to study and become a leader. I do hope somebody somewhere in the world will help my daughter achieve her dreams….”

As for Mukherjee and Majumdar, they were very touched to get a letter of thanks from the Nobel Laureate. Last August when Malala contacted Mukherjee she was not yet a Nobel Laureate. When she bagged the Nobel, an excited Mukherjee sent her a congratulatory note, only to get a response from her father, Yusufzai, “who said that now I have become her secretary and am responding to her letters!”

Praise galore for Kolkata Rotarians

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RC Mingora President Fazal Maula Zahid was first approached on August 12, 2014, by Ziauddin Yousafzai, a member of his club, to discuss Gulalai’s medical ailment and seek help for her treatment. “He sent me the cell phone number of Gulalai’s father, who I met and learnt that she is a very intelligent girl and has cardiac complications and her surgery in Pakistan will cost $15,000, a huge amount a school teacher like him could not afford,” says Zahid.

As Rotarians remain connected through mails, Facebook, websites, meetings and personal contact, “we were aware that cheap and quick treatment is possible in Kolkata in India.” He got in touch with Rtn Tapas Mukherjee, “who was so expeditious that my first mail dated August 13 got a response within hours. He said we Rotarians will take up this case and help. This gave us a lot of hope and comfort.”

With RC Calcutta South City volunteering to pick up the cost of surgery, local stay, transportation and other expenses and Yousafzai their travel cost from Pakistan, Gulalai was set. “Though the operation could not be done for some medical reasons, it was a very nice experience with Indian Rotarians. We will never forget their kindness, the precious time and hospitality extended to the Gulalai Family. In all, we exchanged 150 emails for this,” adds a very grateful Zahid.

On the issue of taking Gulalai towards total recovery possible only by a heart transplant as opined by the Kolkata experts, and PDG Utpal Majumdar’s offer to pay at least part of that cost, I asked Yousafzai if his daughter Malala would extend another appeal to Rotary leaders worldwide. His response: “The issue is not about the arrangement of money. Rather it is the right decision of the doctors to operate on her or not. Doctors in India thought it was too risky to do. If Gulalai’s medical reports and scans are shared with other well known heart surgeons and they come with a different opinion, then we should think about the logistics.”

He too is full of gratitude for the Kolkata Rotarians. “I, as member of Rotary Club Mingora, Swat, truly appreciate the Kolkata Rotarians for their efforts to help Gulalai in her treatment and am thankful to them for extending remarkable moral support and hospitality to Gulalai’s family,” he added.

RB

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