30th July 2015
Our fabulous GP Volunteer Doctor! Dr Catherine writes...
I’d followed Love the One through Facebook for a while before getting the opportunity to come and work as a volunteer doctor for 3 months with Cat and Mary. I’d always admired their work and always wanted to go and do something similar and so was very excited when I managed to get a 3 month sabbatical from work to go out and volunteer with them in Orissa.
I always knew that it was going to be quite an experience but, as I boarded the plane, I was also full of trepidation, not knowing quite what to expect, not knowing what life for the next 3 months was going to be like, worried that I would be out of my depth, worried how I was going to cope with the heat, worried I was going to get ill…but it was too late to change my mind now – I was on the plane!!
And, although I didn’t know it at the time, I was on my way to the most incredible, amazing, emotional, humbling, rewarding and wonderful 3 months I’ve ever had.
With a population of over 1 billion, India is home to 400 million children, the largest number in any country in the world. There literally are children everywhere you look in India!
There has been much in the news recently about India as an emerging economy but less about the enormous poverty that exists there. A staggering 46% of children in India go hungry...that is nearly 1 in 2 who go to bed with an empty stomach. In England if a child gets ill we take it for granted they can get free medical care, no matter what the problem is or what their background is – in India this isn’t so. In England we take it for granted that a child will have someone to fight their corner and look out for them – in India this isn’t so. In England we take for granted that children will have the freedom to play and have fun and be protected whilst they grow up and explore the world – in India this isn’t so.
But Love the One is seeking to change this.
Based in Orissa, one of the poorest states in India, they are helping ensure that some of the poorest children can access healthcare but also they will stand up for them and advocate for them when no one else will and allow them to play and have a childhood. And how do they do all this? With a lot of inspiration and hard work, Cat and Mary have set up something really amazing in Berhamphur….even more impressive given the fact they have only been there for less than a year.
To make sure that the poorest children have access to healthcare, Love the One do regular clinics in some of the poorest areas of the city. We alternated between doing a clinic near the city centre where we were able to use a Muslim Association’s Community Centre and a clinic a slum which was built on a rubbish dump. Clinics were hard work and chaotic but we were able to see and treat children with all sorts of problems from minor ailments such as sore throats and scabies to seriously ill children and children with chronic health problems. We took with us an impressive supply of medications and had Niranjan, our brilliant clinic co-ordinator and lab technician was able to do some basic blood and urine tests, and so we were often able to treat children then and there. However, if they needed further assessment or treatment were we were able to organise this.
Clinics were a real team affair with Pradeep organising, Niranjan doing lab tests, Rupak, our brilliant driver, ferrying us and all the equipment there and back and providing us with much needed cold drinks at regular intervals, Nirapama, our nurse, making sure all the children were registered and had observations and an enormous team of translators (Matthew, Santoshini, Jo, Arati, Manali) who were essential in our communication with the children and their parents.
We also did clinics in schools in some of the fishing villages on the coast near Berhamphur. These villages were hit hard by a devastating cyclone last year. At these school health clinics we would do health checks on all the children who attended the government schools. Dental caries and scabies were huge problems but we also picked up children with chest infections, previously undetected heart murmurs, a child who was severely deaf who had not had hearing aids, a child with Down’s syndrome that had never been diagnosed…we saw all sorts.
As well as these clinics, during my time with Love the One, we also carried out clinics and health checks in some hostels (which are a bit like children’s homes). In one local hostel, not far from where we were based we found very basic conditions and picked up 2 children with TB, children with growth problems and heart problems as well as the usual scabies and dental caries. Whilst I was there we worked closely with the hostel and along with the youth team at Love the One, managed to transform the rooms the children stayed in thanks to some painting projects and worked closely with the couple running the hostel, who attended our parenting course and we took the children on trips to the beach and had an afternoon of games for them.
As I’ve said, some of the problems we were able to treat then and there but some of the children we saw in clinic needed further investigations or hospital treatment. We then had to liase with local hospitals or investigation centres to try and get these organised. We tried to accompany the children as much as possible to be their advocate and make sure they were treated nicely and appropriately (something which sadly could not be guaranteed in India).
Some of the children who we met were not through clinics. Some had heard of us and made their own way to see us or we found them one way or another. I saw quite a lot of children with cerebral palsy in this way. In England children with cerebral palsy often have particular needs and have access to a variety of people to help them with these, including doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, play therapists, etc. In India sadly this is often not the case and many had not been given a diagnosis and hadn’t had access to any of these things. The parents were left trying to do their best but not really sure how to help their child. For one little boy, Sundar, this was certainly the case. He had cerebral palsy, particularly affecting his right side but we also think he had problems with his vision. We managed to design some physiotherapy exercises for him and showed his parents how to do them, were able to give his parents advice about how to stimulate him and gave him some toys with lights and sound which he was able to respond to and we were also able to provide some practical help, in the shape of a splint for his foot and also a pushchair so his parents could push him as his mum was getting a bad back from carrying him everywhere and it was getting harder to do so as he had grown.
Another child who we found was Pratik. He is from a rural village 12 hours bus drive away, which is the same village that Niranjan comes from. Niranjan got a phone call to say that a newborn baby from his village was at the local government hospital and so he asked us if we could go along. So 5pm on a Friday evening I went with him to the hospital only to find the baby had been discharged. We eventually found
them on the side of a busy road waiting to get the bus back home. Pratik had been born 7 weeks early and was very tiny and had also been born with a form of spina bifida on his neck. The hospital clearly thought he wasn’t going to survive and had sent him home without doing anything. He was losing weight and not feeding well and needed an operation on his neck. We managed to admit him to a hospital 4 hours away in Vizak where they fed him through a tube and gave him the operation he needed. The operation was risky and myself, nursing student Verity and translator Monali liased with the hospital and tried to support his parents. We were all very relieved that he got through the operation and since then he’s gone from strength to strength. I’m so glad we found him and were able to help fight for him to get the treatment he needed.
As well as the clinics, Love the One also ran an EPIC centre. EPIC stands for Early Paediatric Intervention Centre. It’s essentially like a pre-school for children under 5s set up because Love the One recognise that, in order to grow up healthy and happy, children need a safe place to play and grow and explore the world. Children from the poorest backgrounds can attend for a half a day (soon to go up to the whole day) and are picked up and taken home every day. Whilst at pre-school they have a safe environment to play in, they are given a nutritious snack and brush their teeth and the pre-school team do a wonderful job at also teaching them some structure and a little bit about the world. These things really do have a huge impact.
On my first day at Love the One, I had to review a little boy called Noit, who was about 18 months old, and new to pre-school but was very floppy, was sleeping all the time and wasn’t sitting let alone standing on this own. Other than the fact he was developmentally behind and floppy and sleepy I couldn’t find a medical problem. It turned out he was still being breast-fed but his mum had to work all day and he was left in the care of his brothers. He was neglected and malnourished but thrived in the pre-school environment with some stimulation and some proper nutrition. By the end of my time in India, he was sitting, smiling, giggling, trying to stand up and thriving!
The other part of what Love the One do is the youth work. Led by Jo, the Youth Yeam work with older children of all backgrounds to try and inspire them to a make a difference. The children near our base were from relatively well-off backgrounds but they were keen to be involved and came and helped at youth events at children’s hostels and in some of the local villages. They also helped us out at clinics when they could, entertaining the children as they waited or distracting them if they had to have blood tests, etc. As well as working with the local youth, Jo and his team also ran events in the community, with children’s hostels and planning a children’s party in one of the local villages.
So, as you can see, Love the One is doing an incredible job standing up and improving life for the poorest children in India and the money donated really does go to the children who need it the most.
Love the One have an amazing team of people, led by Cat and Mary, who all work hard in sometimes difficult and frustrating conditions to make sure that these children can access the care they need. I’m so glad I got the opportunity to go out and help - it was a privilege to be able to be a part of a team, which now feel like family, and to be able to help so many gorgeous little people whose lives just wouldn’t be the same if Love the One weren’t there doing what they are doing.