Mending little hearts

Afghan baby Aisha battles for her life.
Afghan baby Aisha battles for her life.

Doing good in the world comes with its share of disappointments. For the team of Rotarians from RI District 3240, such a disappointment came on December 15, when they lost little Aisha, the 20-month-old Afghan girl, who was born with not one or two, but four holes in the heart. The highly complicated six-hour long surgery required to fix her little heart was done at The Mission Hospital in Durgapur in West Bengal, by a team of four doctors led by its Chairman Dr Satyajit Bose, a cardiac surgeon himself.
An Indian child undergoes successful heart surgery.

How Aisha, an orphan child who had lost her father in the violence of daily life in conflict-ravaged Afghanistan, was

An Indian child undergoes successful heart surgery.
An Indian child undergoes successful heart surgery.

able to reach this Indian hospital, with ample hope in her little heart, is a poignant story. And, “the magic of collaboration you have dealt with in the November issue of Rotary News,” says D 3240 PDG Ashok Kumar Agarwal, the brain behind organising four sizable Global Grants. These enabled the surgery of 200-plus poor children from his District, and four children from Pakistan and Afghanistan.

“In this story of collaboration, four countries and three continents came together to help Aisha, who had a very complicated heart problem,” he says. The international partner for the Global Grant through which Aisha’s surgery was done in Durgapur is RC Ayr from District 9550 in Australia. The airfare for the child and her uncle was borne by RC La Jolla Golden Triangle, San Diego, USA (D 5340) and the surgery was done at Durgapur in RI District 3240 in India.

Why Aisha’s story is compelling to relate is because, forget money, so much meticulous planning and co-ordination across continents, time and effort first to get the child and uncle to Durgapur from Kabul, and then overcoming the language barrier, were involved in handling this little girl’s case.

A project begins


But first the story of what these Rotarians have appropriately named ‘Heart to Heart’ project began. It all started in 2008–09 when eight children from the District requiring heart surgery were operated in Delhi. In 2009–10, when Ajit Irom became DG of D 3240, his club RC Imphal formed a partnership with RC Asansol and both the clubs raised funds from local resources and 27 operations were done at The Mission Hospital, Durgapur.

That year Gaurang Desai, a health care professional himself, was the president of RC Asansol, and he negotiated with Dr Satyan Bose, who headed The Mission Hospital to reduce the price of surgery “as it was required for very poor children, most of them with congenital heart defects. In one shot and within 10 minutes he agreed to bring down the cost, then to just Rs 60,000, for an operation which would cost paying-patients Rs 1.5–2 lakh,” recalls Desai.

A moving documentary, aptly titled Heart to Heart was made and went on to win the silver lotus award from the President of India.

Meanwhile, Agarwal, as the DGE, visited the hospital and “was really moved by the work that was being done; 22 children were operated.”

Lady luck smiles

So as DG-elect when he attended the International Assembly in January 2010, he tried to forge international partnerships with DGEs from other countries. He didn’t find too much interest until the last day, when he met Dr Hong, the DGE from South Korea. “He showed interest but when he sought details, we had a huge problem — the language barrier.” As he was cursing his bad luck, suddenly a woman appeared from nowhere and asked if she could help. “I told her I need an — English-Korean translator. And she said I am one! I couldn’t have been luckier.”

Thus materialised their first Global Grant for $70,000 with District 3620 (Korea). With this money, including funds raised from their own district, 56 children were operated.

The next year Meggin Sullivan of RC Vista, USA (D 5340), showed interest in the project, “she worked like a person possessed, and got the support of her club and six other clubs. Another TRF Global Grant of $55,000 results and we did 47 surgeries with this money and another 16 with the funds we raised,” says Agarwal.

Next, the Australians of D 9550 came forward to help and the $60,000 dollars raised helped many more children. When Dr Hong invited Agarwal to Korea for a conference and he showed a moving video of the free operations being done for poor children from his district, the Koreans came forward to help more — yet another Global Grant of $80,000.

Of course, adds Agarwal, for all four Global Grants, his District (3240) has contributed $20,000, $10,000, $15,000 and $20,000.

He adds that this project has granted a new life to many young children, “who would have otherwise died a premature death. Most of these children are now going to school and living a healthy normal life.”

From across the border

Of the 200-plus children, many have come from Pakistan, and Aisha was from Afghanistan. Now three more Pakistan children need heart surgery. The responsibility of working out the logistics and handling tricky visa and police reporting issues (Indians and Pakistanis visiting the other country need to report to police stations!) are being handled by Desai. “This is not easy; a lot of legalities and formalities are involved, but Rotarians in Delhi (PDG Mukesh Arneja organises their stay in Delhi before reaching Durgapur) and Kolkata help too,” says Desai.

A heartbreak

When I interviewed Desai in the first week of December, little Aisha was fighting for her life. He was hopeful that she would be “off the ventilator on December 8, and is scheduled to go back home on December 17. Their tickets are booked, but we will allow them to leave only if the doctor is satisfied with her progress. Otherwise we will extend her stay. They came from Kabul by flight to Delhi and are going back through the same route.”

The Rotarians’ heartbreak at the loss of Aisha’s life would be that much greater because they had really struggled to break the language barrier. When I asked for an interview with the uncle, Desai said, “That is the biggest problem; he speaks only Pashtun and we had to first get hold of some kabuliwalas to communicate with him. The uncle was totally zapped when he came here; he had not seen such a big hospital in his life.” Next they got hold of a couple of students from Afghanistan who were studying in a Dhanbad college, and these students would make the one-hour bus journey to Durgapur to break the communication barrier.”

Anyway, while Aisha could not be saved, the Rotarians will continue to try and save more lives. “We are expecting three more children from Karachi, and PDG Faiz Kidwai is in touch with us and we are trying to organise their visa,” adds Desai.

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