April 24th, Thane District, Lavhali Village
Amid the school construction chaos, Ashley and I have also been working on a large health camp geared towards cataract operations in a tribal area north of Mumbai. At the beginning of April, I was introduced to Shirish Patel, an engineer, and senior BMC official in charge of the pipeline that runs through the Saki Naka slum area. He was very interested in holding a medical camp at his farm estate in Thane district for the rural tribal farmers of the area. After a few meetings at his office, Ashley and I arranged to check out the tribal area to see if and how we could organize a camp there.
The proposed site of the health camp is a two hour train journey from Mumbai to Badlapur and then a 45 minute drive into the country to the villages. Mr.Patel drove us through several of the villages where we spoke to many of the villagers, trying to get a grasp of their needs. Mr. Patel is a gracious host and invited Ashley and I to lunch at his house on the farm which consisted of two rooms on one level, built of brick, with wide verandahs for shade, overlooking dry, parched, brown earth and young mango trees.
The tribal communities are a hardened group of people, surviving in a harsh sun-baked region with little assistance from the government. They often walk long distances in severe heat, cultivating fields and herding livestock.
While surveying the area, we visited the local government hospital. What we found was five, one level buildings, set in a semi-circle. Four of these buildings were padlocked shut and were not being used. One building was being used as a small clinic. After several minutes, we located the nurse in charge and found out there was no doctor on duty. The clinic had no patients and I had a feeling that this place was nearly useless. If asked, the government could state that they indeed have medical facilities available for these people, but in actual fact, these buildings sit empty and useless.
Mr.Patel has offered us the use of his home for the health camp if we could help him with the arrangements. Excited about the prospect of working in the area, Ashley and I visited a few Eye Hospitals in Mumbai to see if we could arrange cataract operations for villagers in the tribal area. We had a meeting at the Bachooali Eye Hospital in Parel, Mumbai and found out that the hospital does over 5000 free cataract operations every year. We discussed our plan with them and came to an agreement. The Deutshe Bank, which has helped Janvi Charitable Trust with other projects over the years, including donating computers to the school, also offered to help us. In a meeting with Jelin Thomas of Deutshe Bank, they agreed to send some volunteers and help with some of the funding for the camp. The main purpose of this health camp is to assess and offer free cataract operations to the villagers, but we would also deal other health issues. A gynecologist, Child Specialist and a general practioner were hired to check patients and prescribe medicine free of charge to anyone who attended the camp.
Four days before the camp, Ashley and I went back to the villages with Mr.Patel to make final preparations. Mr.Patel had been working hard publicizing the camp by hanging banners describing the camp’s facilities in 14 of the nearby villages. We drove from village to village to speak with the locals to make sure they knew of the camp and organized a rickshaw driver with an attached megaphone to drive through the countryside. The weather has been unusually hot for this time of year and out in the country it is unbearably hot. Most of the villages seemed ghostly and unoccupied as the majority of the inhabitants were inside their dwellings taking refuge in the shade.
On the day of the camp, I was on the train at 5 a.m. to meet Ashley at Ghatkopar station where we then headed to Badlapur to meet Mr.Patel at his home in the city. Over cups of chai, the three of us discussed the final preparations for the day, and then headed to a local medical store to purchase our medicine.
When I first thought of starting DWP last year, I had the romantic vision of loading a truck with medicine, and with a team of doctors, we could offer help to the less fortunate. Even though DWP has now held several health camps in India, I still had goosebumps as I loaded medicine and supplies into Mr. Patel’s truck.
Mr.Patel’s staff had erected tents to provide shade around the building and a water tanker had come to fill the reserve tanks which would be used to keep the patients and doctors hydrated throughout the day. In only a few hours, his home had been turned into a makeshift hospital and we were ready for patients. Because of the vast distance between villages we hired two jeeps to drive village to village to pick-up and drop-off patients. Forty-five minutes after the jeeps left to pick up patients from the countryside, I could see the dust trail of our first jeep coming up the hill carrying approximately 20 villagers. The camp was now in full swing and more patients began to arrive. As I looked down the hill, I could see dots of color against the burnt brown earth. Women and men, with children in tow, were making the 5oo metre walk from the main road to our camp. All of our doctors were now busy with patients. Chai and biscuits were served to all the waiting patients as lunch was being prepared. By lunch time the doctors had seen over 100 patients and the eye team had diagnosed 18 patients with cataracts.
Mr.Patel was very excited about this camp, as it was his first, and he had invited a local politician as an honoured guest. This was a source of great frustration for me as the last thing I want at a health camp is a political agenda. DWP works for the betterment of the people and I am not interested in helping a politician improve his local profile. The health camp was brought to a standstill as a police-escorted, white Ambassador (local Indian car that transports VIP’s) with a flashing red light, came over the hill and through the gates to the camp, stopped, and covered the waiting patients in a cloud of red dirt. Out of the vehicle stepped a rotund,oily skinned man reaking of self-worth and importance. He was ushered by Mr.Patel to a table in the center of the camp and soon the “dog and pony show” began. I was asked to sit next to him, and although this was the last thing I wanted to do, I felt it was impossible to say no. A friend of mine, Mr. David Hill, who is from the UK, but has lived in Mumbai for the past 10 years, and is trying to help Janvi Charitable Trust with corporate sponsorship, was also present at the camp and was asked to sit with us. Using a microphone, Mr. Patel began speaking, describing what we were trying to do at the health camp, and who was involved. He spoke briefly about DWP, explaining to the people that DWP was a “one man army” from Canada, which brought laughter from the crowd. Next, the politician spoke to David and me, wrapped a ceremonial shawl around our necks, handed us flowers and then spoke to the crowd. As I watched him address the villagers his arrogance was apparent. Midway through his speech, he actually stopped and answered his cell phone. When he wasn’t speaking he had a look of total boredom. Moments after his speech, he quickly said goodbye with a limp handshake. I watched him walk away in his polished camel leather shoes and starched white suit and I couldn’t help but wonder what the villagers thought as they sat waiting for 20 minutes in the oppressive heat while this official spoke of his political genius. The camp resumed once the theatrics were over.
Over the next two hours the camp saw a decline in patients due to the rising temperature, which hovered just below 40 degrees celcius. To add to the frustrations one of our jeeps blew a tire and was out of commision for almost two hours. The doctors had assessed 150 patients, and 28 people were diagnosed with cataracts. The team from the eye hospital had decided to pack their things and make the 2.5 hour journey back to the hospital. The rest of us continued work and another twenty patients came through the camp over the next hour. Once our last batch of patients were delivered back to their villages, we packed up the camp and made our way back to Mumbai.
Within 48 hours after the camp was finished, DWP paid for a bus to bring a small team from the eye hospital back to Lavhali village to pick up those patients in need of cataract surgery. To be eligible for surgery, a patient’s blood sugar level and blood pressure has to be in the right zone so as not to complicate the surgery.When the doctors tested the patient’s levels again, six of the fourteen patients eligible for surgery, failed to meet the requirements and had to be left behind. The doctors left instructions with these patients, and we will try and get them ready for the next batch of surgeries in the coming weeks. Ashley accompanied the villagers to the eye hospital in Mumbai. The patients were checked into the hospital and were prepared for surgery the following morning.
All of cataract patients are elderly farmers from the countryside. Arriving in the hectic and chaotic city of Mumbai was frightening and disorienting for them. Two of the female patient’s blood pressure rose to abnormally high levels and the hospital refused to do their surgeries. These two patients were not allowed to stay in the hospital for the night. Several phone calls between Ashley and myself commenced, and after fighting with the hospital and weighing the options, we decided the best plan for the wellbeing of these two patients was to get them back to the relative comfort of their village. Ashley was able to find a private car to take these women directly back to their village at a cost of 1500 INR($35CAD) Although this was costly, it was the best plan to ensure these women were comfortable and safe on their journey home.
I arrived at the hospital early the next morning to see how the surgeries went. I found Ashley sitting with our patients and saw smiles all around. The surgeries had all been successful and the patients were very happy with the results. I spoke to an elderly man who was excitedly pointing things out in the room that he could now see. He told me that before the operation he couldn’t take himself to the bathroom without assistance and now he could see my face clearly. He thanked Ashley and me several times with a smile both humble and joyous. Another elderly lady I spoke to said that she was very excited to eat fish again as she hasn’t eaten fish in years because she couldn’t see the bones. She was also very excited to get back to her village and to be able to see her grandchildren clearly.
This camp had been filled with frustrations and several setbacks due to the area and the proximity to Mumbai. When we first started planning this camp we thought it was possible to help around 300 people or more. The severe heat played a big role in us not attracting as many patients, as well as the local’s attitude toward western medicine. Most of their ailments are treated in their villages with their own remedies and it’s not often, or at all,. that they have access to health clinics and hospitals. We advertised and promised all the doctors’ services and medicine free of charge and I think some people just didn’t believe that could be true. Our goal was not for these people to abandon their traditional medicines, however people suffering from cataracts can benefit greatly from western methods and we wanted to make it possible for anyone to utilize these services. Now that our first five patients have their vision back and are happy with the service we provided, we hope that we can help more of their fellow villagers in the coming weeks. We will also be checking up on these first patients to make sure all is well with their recovery.
All the hard work over the last few weeks was worth it just to see an old man see once again and to witness his gracious smile.
Dirty Wall Project contribution to the camp:
- 1500 INR or $35 CAD (private car for 2 patients)
- 1650 INR or $38 CAD (the transport of 5 patients)
- 3500 INR or $81 CAD (payment to eye hospital (transport etc.)
-12,000 INR or $280 CAD (medicine)
- 4000 INR or $116 CAD (food for doctors and patients)
Total- 23,050 INR or $550 CAN
170 patients received free medication and diagnosis
28 people diagnosed with cataracts. All have the option for free surgery.