If you don’t look too closely, Asunba seems like just another middle-aged man. He lives in a village near Dimapur, the largest city in Nagaland. During the last week of March, someone showed him an ad in a newspaper — one of the many publicity measures undertaken by the members of District 3240 in the lead-up to the Rotary RAHAT mission from March 28 to April 5. With the aid of a family member, he made his way to the District Hospital in Dimapur city. There, he waited in line to see a doctor, and when his turn finally came, described his problem. Unable to afford the necessary surgery, Asunba has been forced to carry around a catheter attached to a plastic bag for the last 11 years. I met him in a ward at the second site of the RAHAT mission, the Christian Institute of Health Sciences and Research’s Referral Hospital (CIHSR). He was about to go in for surgery and the expression on his face betrayed both his fear and his hope.
The Rotary RAHAT Medical Mission at Dimapur is a free surgical camp organised by RI District 3080. Inspired by the success of the Intercontinental Medical Missions that he started in 1998, PRIP Rajendra K Saboo was approached to take similar missions to economically-backward areas within India. “Indian doctors,” says Saboo, “are unique in one sense: their ability to innovate. They have worked in sites where logistics and infrastructure are not ideal and still find ways to do fantastic work.” And starting in 2006 in Kalahandi in Orissa, through missions in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Jammu and Kashmir and Chhattisgarh, this prowess has held various doctors from all over the country in good stead.
Asunba was about to go in for surgery and the expression on his face betrayed both his fear and his hope.
The latest mission in Dimapur offers a fresh challenge in a new region. District 3240 is the largest RI District in India by area, covering all the seven States of the North-East as well as Sikkim and parts of West Bengal. There are 79 clubs and almost 3,000 Rotarians. But for various reasons, including the remoteness of the location, there’s a disconnection between the region and the rest of India, says DG Chandu Agarwal. “District 3240 does not have a lot of recognition in the rest of the country. So we wanted to make everybody aware of the seven sisters of the North-East and help build a better relationship with citizens of this area and the mainland.”
When I arrive on the second day, the mission is in full swing. The organising members are constantly running around, answering questions from patients or reaching for their phones to make sure things are getting done. The main venue is the government’s District Hospital. A new block has just come up and even before it’s officially handed over to the hospital authorities, it’s become the locus of the RAHAT mission. In front of the gleaming white building, a large wedding-style shamiana has been erected to house the registration area. Hundreds of people have come and queued up to submit filled-out application forms. A group of young volunteers help those who find the form intimidating. Past the registration area lie the Outpatient Departments (OPDs) where the mission doctors who have come from various parts of the country are screening patients.
Every time it’s a new challenge, new place, new language.
– Dr Suresh Sablok
Dr Jammula M Rao, a general surgeon for over 35 years from Bhubaneshwar, sits in one of these rooms with former classmate and mission volunteer, Dr Suresh Sablok from Nahan, Himachal Pradesh. I watch Dr Rao as he patiently explains to a patient why rushing into surgery isn’t a good idea. “God has given us the opportunity,” he says, “It’s not the number or the quantity I’m interested in, it’s the quality.” Though Dr Sablok is a veteran of these medical camps, having participated in many of the Intercontinental Medical Missions to Africa, he finds each one unique. “Every time it’s a new challenge, new place, new language,” he says. After they screen the patients, a list is prepared of those who need surgeries and their surgical schedules are decided. The operating theatres (OTs) are where the crucial work is happening. The OTs are located at both the District Hospital and the Referral Hospital at the CIHSR. The District Hospital has clearly seen better days with even the light fittings above the operating table showing their age. Dr Sushil Karia, the lone urologist of the group who hails from Rajkot, didn’t mince his words when he rated the infrastructure ‘one out of ten.’ In the Ophthalmology department, Dr Pankaj Shah, Dr Chirag Bahuguna and Dr Perminder are better off. All the necessary equipment is available and the doctors are taking full advantage of it. “What we are planning to do in one day would normally take a month here,” says Dr Pankaj Shah, an eye specialist from Mumbai.
PDG Dr R S Parmar is the medical director of the mission and I meet him while he is prepping for surgery. “There was a lady carrying a tumour for 30–40 years and she couldn’t lie down properly,” he says, showing me a grisly photograph of the tumour after it was excised. Neurofibromatosis or Von Recklinghausen disease is a disorder caused by the mutation of a gene responsible for control of cell division. The patient’s tumour which was cut from her thigh weighed six kg, says Dr Parmar. He proceeds to praise the local staff and nurses assisting with the surgeries, saying “they have a great zeal to work.” Khrievotsunuo Sekhose, a nurse at the district hospital for 20 years, shyly tells me, “we usually work from 7 to 4, but these days we’re at the hospital from 7 to 6.30.” All the nurses are working almost twelve-hour shifts for seven consecutive days, even giving up their Sunday for the Mission.
At the Referral Hospital, DGE Dr R Bharat from D 3250 is working along with Dr Manik Sharma and Dr Chanjiv Singh to perform plastic surgery procedures with the aid of the staff at CIHSR. “The medical profession has been commercialised, everybody knows,” says Dr Bharat, “I take great pleasure in these missions. They have become a part of my life. But the challenge is to combine volume with safety.” All the surgeons, including the ortho team of Dr Jayant Nawani, Dr Jagdeep Singh and Dr Manmohan Rawat, are pleasantly surprised at the impressive state of the facilities at CIHSR. The director of the institute, Dr Abraham Joseph, formerly of Christian Medical Centre, Vellore, says quite proudly that among other things, they have the first nursing college in Nagaland.
“For the first two days, it was very challenging,” says DG Chandu Agarwal, “as it was the first surgical camp of such scale in the entire North-Eastern region. But things are going smoothly now and due to word-of-mouth, numbers are growing every day. We are seeing 300 to 400 patients a day at the OPD and more than 200 surgeries have been done over the last four days.” The Chief Medical Officer of Dimapur and his deputy visited the Mission. “They are doing a commendable job,” the CMO said. Nitin Agarwal, the chairman of the steering committee, says, “RAHAT is about touching people’s lives. Motivating people was hard in the beginning, but after seeing the results of the camp, everyone is so motivated.” It is clear that the lives of the patients, the doctors and the organisers have all been touched by this wonderful initiative.
Pictures by Thomas Manuel