Photography and writing by Chuck Russell
Mehdi Nawaj Jung Institute of Oncology and
Regional Cancer Hospital (MNJ) in Hyderabad, India.
The wide–eyed wonder on the faces of the young boy and older man stay with me – that and the contrast of the joy and the grief we encountered.
On that day, Canadian volunteers Dr. Gillian Fyles, nurse Zahra Lalani and I join the Two Worlds Cancer Collaboration sponsored Rural Outreach Team on their visits to the villages of Ghanapur and Damarigidda in Andhra Pradesh.
As we pass the newly completed highway on the outskirts of Secunderabad the contrast between rural and urban India is readily apparent. With the congestion and crowds of the city behind us, the 45 minute drive to the first of the two villages takes us into rural India. Like other villages across India, the villages are at the heart of the country’s food production.
As we slow to a stop beside the wall of a two-storey house in Ghanapur, locals are herding their goats through the village. Across the other side of the unpaved road, voices float across the grounds from behind the low wall surrounding the village school.
Each month the Rural Outreach Team – doctor, social worker, nurse and healthcare volunteers – visit villages that would otherwise have no access to regular healthcare. In Ghanapur a former cancer patient at MNJ provides her open-air courtyard as the health clinic site welcoming Dr. Gayatri Palat and the team.
Word travels quickly of the Team’s arrival and before long there is a small line of villagers waiting to see them. It’s an opportunity for follow up with cancer patients but also to provide basic healthcare to the village – and almost as importantly build relationships and trust.
Within a short while the clinic is in full swing – Dr. Gayatri Palat, Profesor Kumari and social worker Venkatash confer with the mother of a child with Down’s Syndrome. Others come by to renew prescriptions or just to talk.
Through the support of Two Worlds Cancer Collaboration’s donors, $1200 a year means the Rural Outreach Team visits nine outlying villages twice a month. The team has village-based, healthcare volunteers that provide limited care and support between visits and alert the team to any urgent concerns.
As the clinic wraps up we cross the road and enter the school grounds. Outside a classroom a sea of shoes greets us – removing ours we cross the threshold. Inside the headmaster and his eager charges greet us. Professor Kumari quickly engages the children. Some have heard of diabetes – they call it sugar disease – it’s something that grandparents have they say. Few know anything of cancer. Professor Priya takes the opportunity to talk simply about cancer emphasizing that it’s not contagious.
In the adjacent building two young girls from the primary class, between fits of giggles, treat us to their rendition of “Head and shoulders, knees and toes…” The hope is that these students can in turn help educate their parents about what they have learned about diabetes, cancer and simple hygiene.
From the school in Ghanapur, we wind our way to the smaller village of Damarigidda. Here we meet a young mother who suffered a hemorrhagic stroke following childbirth She has learned to walk again with the help of village healthcare volunteers and the Rural Outreach Team. The woman abandoned by her husband after the stroke is financially destitute. Dr. Palat says she hopes to help her find suitable work in the village.
Dr. Palat’s impact at MNJ and throughout Andhra Pradesh has been great – from her obvious compassion for her patients to her tireless championing of the legalization of medical morphine in the state.
Dr. Palat’s impact at MNJ and throughout Andhra Pradesh has been great – from her obvious compassion for her patients to her tireless championing of the legalization of medical morphine in the state. It’s through her unwavering determination that MNJ has a dedicated 72-patient pediatric ward now with a full-time, pediatric oncologist; has established two sustainable, home-visit palliative care teams and the Rural Outreach Team; and most recently has opened a dedicated hospice for end-of-life care on donated property in Hyderabad.
As the Team leaves the two villages – and the wide-eyed wonder of youth and wisdom – it’s obvious that the $1200 a year it takes to support the Rural Outreach Team has a great impact on villagers’ lives. The “Head and shoulders, knees and toes” refrain brings a smile to the faces of villagers and visitors alike – and a true sense of hope.