PRID Shekhar Mehta’s office is like a mini crèche as little children climb up the chairs, while some try to ‘read’ the files on his table and the tiny tots are cuddled comfortably in their mothers’ arms. Mehta, like Santa, minus the gear, strikes a conversation with the children while handing out cookies and chocolates.
He is a member of RC Calcutta Mahanagar, RID 3291, and I was at his office to write about his club’s pet project — Saving little hearts.
Rukshona Gayin (3) looks fragile but cheerful as she hides behind her mother’s pallu. Her lean frame has survived a surgery for a hole in her heart when she was three months old. When the doctor advised her parents to consult a heart specialist, with limited means, they were in a fix on how to proceed, before they were directed to Mehta’s office.
“It is not only heart surgeries. I never send anybody who comes here for help, empty handed. People come here with the faith that Rotary will be able to help them some way. You cannot say this is not my programme or we do not have money set aside for this,” explains Mehta, as he translates the youngsters’ chatter in Bengali into English for my benefit.
If the mother gets measles, rubella or viral infection during the first trimester of pregnancy, the child is bound to suffer from rheumatic heart disease.
— Dr R P Vidhawan, past president of RC Calcutta Mahanagar
One of the mothers who had sold her earrings for the child’s surgery is asked by Mehta: “Did you get your earrings back?” Pat comes the cheerful reply, “No. But I got my son back.”
What dreams do you have for your children, I ask the parents. One father says, “I am happy my boy is alive and active. He is studying now and I will make sure that he is suitably qualified to take on the challenges of life.”
“Bada hokkar kya banegey — doctor, engineer, pilot banegi, ya desh ke pradhan mantri banegey?” asks Mehta to the older children. One boy wants to become a pilot. Another girl, all of 8, wants to become an engineer. One wants to become a cricketer and his idol is M S Dhoni. Another wants to become an actor and in Tagore’s land, one little boy entertained us with a cute Bengali poem.
Farooq Gazi (5) has developed some minor complications, says his father, and Mehta immediately puts him on to Dr R P Vidhawan who was present for the meeting.
There were about ten children, all of whom were beneficiaries of Rotary’s paediatric heart surgery project and they are all comfortable with Mehta; some climb on to his lap and one is happy to lean on his shoulder while sitting for a photo session.
“It all started when RIPN Sushil Gupta once asked me, “Why don’t you start the Gift of Life programme in eastern India. Even though I had no clue about heart surgery then, I said okay.” Mehta says, tracing the genesis of this life-saving project. It took him about two months to put the resources together. PDG Kalpana Khound of RID 3240 suggested that she would send 15 children from the North-East to Kolkata “for us to take care of their heart surgeries.” But before he could act, one child died. “That shook me hard. For lack of knowledge on how to proceed quickly, we lost a life.”
Then a couple of days later, Dr R P Vidhawan, a heart specialist who was also the incoming president of RC Calcutta Mahanagar in 2006, suggested to Mehta that he wanted to do heart surgeries for children. “And I thought, wow, yeh toh zaroorat thi and here he is.” Vidhawan wanted to do six free surgeries for the year. But during his installation, 30 members volunteered to support one child each. “So we ended the year with 66 operations, and it became a permanent project since then. Soon he came to be known as ‘Robinhood Doctor.’”
Vidhawan’s passion for treating children with CHD (congenital heart defect) comes through as he gives a background story. While interning in a hospital as a young medical student in the early 1970s he was a mute spectator who witnessed the death of two children due to senior doctors’ lack of knowledge in treating blue babies (children with a hole in the heart). Later he went abroad and learnt about open heart surgery. But it was his father, an asthmatic patient, who inspired him to pursue heart surgery.
Between him and cardiologist Ajay Kaul, a close friend of Vidhawan, the club has done 1,000 heart surgeries since 2006. The surgeon is appreciative of Kaul who was not a Rotarian, “yet he would say, ‘If you are not charging anything, chalo, even I do not want anything. That is the spirit of that man. He would visit patients by their bedside past even midnight.”
Vidhawan’s wife is also equally involved in the project. “She takes the children to the B M Birla Hospital, admit them and tell me the room number. I just go there, reassure the mothers, pray to the Almighty and perform the surgery. Nothing equals the joy of seeing these children growing up normally, and the satisfied smile on the parents’ faces,” he says. He is sponsoring the education of five children who were his patients.
He says that if the mother gets measles, rubella or viral infection during the first trimester of pregnancy, the child is bound to suffer from rheumatic heart disease. “These people live in such unhygienic conditions and the risk is much more there.”
For two countries who have fought three wars in 70 years, what could be a better way of bringing peace amongst their people?
— PRID Shekhar Mehta
The club was supporting the programme with members’ contribution for around four years after which the then DG Utpal Majumdar took it forward across the district and RCs Chowringhee and Calcutta got actively involved. “We have sponsored 100 heart surgeries through fundraisers and with help from Rotary India Humanity Foundation (RIHF) and other trusts,” says Neeta Setia, Director Service Projects of RC Chowringhee. She is involved in this project for 10 years now.
When Dr Kaul shifted out from B M Birla Hospital, the hospital started charging more and the clubs struck a partnership with Rabindranath Tagore Hospitals, reputed for paediatric surgery.
Enter RIHF and global grants
Soon the life-transforming project scaled up through global grants and RIHF, which was set up by Mehta when he was RI Director (2011–13), and the club’s flagship project grew speedily. One of RIHF’s goals was to perform 3,000 surgeries. “Under RIHF we took it across India — to Mumbai, Ludhiana, Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Durgapur, Jaipur and Delhi,” says Mehta.
PDG Madhu Rughwani of RID 3030 had a significant influence on him. “When I went to his district conference in 2004–05, it was Rotary’s 101st year and his goal was 101 heart surgeries. He would do fundraising for the project through a girl called Palak Muchhal who is a big time singer today.
We invited her to our club for fundraising, and raised a considerable sum.”
Mehta got in touch with O P Khanna, the founder of Needy Heart Foundation, and Dr Devi Shetty of Narayana Hrudayalaya hospital in Bengaluru, and some heart surgeries were done there. “In Ludhiana, in association with the Indian Army, 17 children were treated for CHD.”
He recalls how his club member Pradeep Rawat (70) donated the proceeds from his paintings for the project. He organised two exhibitions named Art for Little Hearts — one at the Birla Academy of Art and Culture in Kolkata, and another at the Lalit Kala Akademi in Delhi. “He pegged the painting prices in terms of number of surgeries — this painting you buy will help 5 heart surgeries, 10 heart surgeries, etc, and raised nearly ₹60 lakh.”
Surgeries for Pakistani children began at the Durgapur Mission Hospital, when Kamal Sanghvi, who had gone there as RIPR, signed an MoU with the hospital for the Aman ki Aasha programme. “PRIP Kalyan Banerjee, Dr Bose of the Mission Hospital and I went to Pakistan and at every city we were whisked away to a cardiac camp where a number of children were waiting to be screened.” Rotarians in Durgapur coordinated the visa formalities, transportation and accommodation of the children and their parents for their travel from Pakistan via Amritsar, Delhi, Kolkata and finally Durgapur which is 20 km from Kolkata. “There was one instance where a child died after the surgery. That risk is also there,” he says.
His face lights up as he talks about his ‘Rotary Moment’. When he travelled to Durgapur with his wife Rashi, “we met one Asgar Ali from West Pakistan. The mother said: Bahut khush hoon mei; yeh baccha dus din pehle chal nahi sakta tha; aur ab yahan par daud raha hei. What she said next stays in my mind even today. She said, ‘this child was born in Pakistan, but he got a life in India. Iske khoon mei Pakistan hi nahin, Indian blood bhi hai.’ For two countries who have fought three wars in 70 years, what could be a better way of bringing peace amongst their people?”
For three years after the programme began, there used to be at least one child sitting in front of his office with the parents. “And my first job was to call them and get details and send her to Vidhawan for examination.” Now that the government is extending support, very few people approach Rotary. “That’s how it should be. Because the government was not doing it, we began it. People say, government hamara copy kar liya. But that is the idea after all. If we say we only eradicated polio, we are wrong. We got the government involved and that’s how polio got eradicated.”
This is the last global grant heart surgery project the club will be doing because last year the number of people approaching them for heart surgeries reduced. “We have the money for the last five months, but only one heart surgery was performed.” He has roped in dependable donors such as Manu Chatlani, who was introduced to him by Dr Shetty, and Manyavar, the garment outlet chain. “I have taken a backseat now and my staff member Shubo and his wife take care of the project. They meet the children, talk to parents and see that the child is saved.” The beneficiary sometimes contributes money and the rest is arranged through the list of donors.
This programme is like a pilgrimage for any senior leader who visits the district. “It is customary for every president —
Sakuji Tanaka, John Germ, Banerjee, D K Lee, K R Ravindran — to meet some of the children. We do not give mementoes. Instead we sponsor heart surgeries for 5 or 10 children in honour of their visit, like during RIPN Sushil Gupta’s felicitation we sponsored five children,” says Mehta.
Pictures by Jaishree