I am back in Madison, Wisconsin! The last few days have been crazy, considering that I also made a stop ‘on the way’ in Germany, to meet a friend also studying abroad
But finally, I’m ready to tell you all about my last week in India, which was an absolutely fantastic cherry on top of my entire experience.
The very day after Holi, I made the long car trip into the very interior of the state of Maharashtra. We went through huge stretches of forest, on bumpy roads that didn’t allow for any sleep. Our destination was Lok Biradri Prakalp (LBP), or the ‘People’s Brotherhood Project’. This is an organization focusing on healthcare and social welfare founded by Dr. Prakash Amte.
Now before I go any further, I’m going to warn you: this is going to be hard to follow unless you get your Amte’s straight. The incredible work of this remarkable family started in 1947, when “Baba” Amte saw a dying leprosy patient on the side of the street. He and his wife gave up their life to the service of leprosy patients, eventually forming the community of Anandwan that is now home to about 3500 people. In addition to leprosy patients, Anandwan is home to blind, deaf, and orphaned residents who have been cast off from their families and society.
Baba Amte’s sons became doctors, and continued in their parents’ footsteps. One son remained at Anandwan, and the other, Dr. Prakash Amte, went on to found the LBP. Hemalkasa is even more remote than Anandwan, located in the dense jungle of Gadchiroli, ancestral and current home of the Madia and Gond tribes. When they first came to Hemalkasa, Dr. Prakash and his wife Dr. Mandakini (picture below) started from absolute scratch. They treated tribal patients on the ground in front of their hut with whatever means available. Over 40 years, as they gained trust within the community, LBP’s activities have grown and flourished. Drs. Prakash and Manda are mostly retired now, but their son Digant and his wife Anagha have now taken the helm at the hospital.
And that’s where I come in. I worked with Dr. Anagha Amte, who is by training an Obstetrician/Gynecologist, but in practice a General Clinician, Pediatrician, Neonatologist, public health worker etc. Beyond her clinical work, one of Dr. Anagha’s recent initiatives is a project for community health in the nearby villages. She is training rural health workers to collect basic health data on pregnant women and children of 12 villages. Villages are often prohibitively far from Hemalkasa, so having health workers go into the community is a good way to promote preventative care. Dr. Anagha had started training a few young health workers on weighing children, taking blood pressures and checking pregnant women for signs of hypertension and anemia. Also part of their job is to encourage pregnant women to go to the hospital for regular check-ups and for their delivery. I worked with four of the health workers to assist Dr. Anagha in this project. Here we are!
The girls had come to LBP fro the week so they could have a refresher on what they had learned and gain some new knowledge. Dr. Anagha gave me her curriculum, and it was my job to review the old stuff and teach the new. Well, we all became friends and I learned just as much as they did! They were proficient in the local language, which was totally new to me. We made do in Marathi with our fair share of humorous goof-ups (What’s the word for bellybutton??) as we went on our way. I made some miserable attempts to communicate through pictures- turns out I’m no good at drawing a cartoon of amniotic fluid.
We talked about what kinds of procedures are done at checkups- like what exactly does an ultrasound show?- and why it’s so important for deliveries to be done at the hospital. I realized this only too well from a normal delivery I was able to observe at the hospital- the baby didn’t breathe right away but recovered just fine due to quick work by the staff! We discussed how new moms can keep their babies safe, healthy and happy once they’re back in the village. It was really rewarding for me to be able to interact with them. Of course, we talked about other topics too, like whether America has agriculture (they were really surprised to hear I could smell dairy farm from my window at home!)
Later that week, I also did some data entry, transferring their data from ledgers to Excel. I was entering weights of children of several villages, and happened to find a little girl named Priya who was progressing well!
After our ice cream we hung out on the “beach” of a riverbed. In the rainy season the water sometimes rises many meters and overflows the bridge, but right now a large section of the riverbed was completely dry. It was full of coarse sand with large rocks interspersed and it was beautiful.
On other evenings, I made a point to go to the ‘Sangam’, where three local streams met. Here the water level was high enough that boat service was needed to cross the river. This man made the boat you see here out of a single tree. His sole job is to ferry villagers across the river, up to 25 at a time.
So what else did Hemalkasa have in store for me, besides rural health projects and gorgeous river views? Lots, in fact!
My first two days happened to be during a surgical camp. The LBP hospital does not normally do major surgeries, but there are a few surgical camps a year when outside doctors come in and donate their services. This time, a Gynecology surgical team was present to conduct hysterectomies on a dozen women. Most of the women needed surgery due to uterine prolapse. Many had delayed coming to the hospital until the problem was extremely severe. I saw some incredible cases and also got to see the women in recovery and able to go home by the end of my trip.
The doctors operated from 8 am to 8 pm, and it was quite an experience to watch them.
Beyond surgeries, I also visited the hospital often in the next few days and helped out in ways I was capable of. I tried to fix computer glitches and rounded up kids who needed their blood group tested. LBP also runs a school for kids in the area and have around 650 students. They often come from very far away, so it works like a boarding school.
So here I was, surrounded by world class social and health workers, wonderful staff, kids of all ages, and marvelous natural beauty. But it gets even better!
Firstly, we all dined together in their cafeteria and were served out-of-this-world food by the fantastic cook (He kind of reminded me of a cook on a pirate ship- maybe it was his shiny earring)
And secondly, (saved the best for last here!) – LBP is not only a haven for patients and students, but also for animals of all kinds! “Amte’s Animal Orphanage” has got deer, leopards, peacocks, cobras, alligators, and more- all of whom I got to see on a daily basis! Stay tuned for my next blog post, where I’ll talk all about this remarkable endeavor, and also describe our trip to Anandwan.
I’ll just leave a sneak peek here, because I think a leopard makes a great addition to any blog post.
I’ve got to say, it’s awesome to be able to relive these experiences just a little bit by writing about them, even from across the world at UW. Till next time!