Derwan. A name that would be etched in my mind for a while now. It conjured up an image of a vast desert with camels trudging everlasting dunes and distant snow covered peaks. I could just see myself in a Bedouin’s tent trying my best to conjure up an operating theatre. Well, anyway that was the image that sprang to my mind when Sanjay Deshpande asked me if I would help him out in a charity camp. Three months later, I landed in a dusty, noisy Mumbai and got into an even noisier taxi to the aptly named Kohinoor Hotel where the rest of the volunteers would meet up. I was in fact one of the first ones to turn up. It was not long before we were all suitably satisfied with a spicy breakfast and loaded onto the coach which would take us to the Walawalkar Hospital in Derwan. The coach wound its way through the mountain passes of the Western Ghats many were thankful for the antiemetic they had taken at the start. The scenery was breathtaking and the cameras clicked away as the driver took one hairpin bend after another down a steep mountain pass.
It was quite dark when we reached the hospital to my first surprise. It looked like the entire hospital had turned up including the director and the reverential Kaka Maharaj. The director, Mr Walawalkar turned out to be an extremely simple and a humble man who tried to keep himself in the background. Kaka Maharaj was another matter altogether. He was held in high esteem by everyone there, including some of some of the volunteers who had been there before. It was soon to become apparent why. He appeared to have an amazing influence on the people he met and he had a vision which appears to have worked wonders in the place. Almost single handedly, he had developed a snake and scorpion infested Konkan jungle on a mountainside into a modern hospital campus with a budding medical school. The idea was to help the downtrodden and almost completely ignored population of the region with the highest quality of healthcare for free. He had achieved a near impossible task and had visions of taking things even higher. We were simply one of the tools he was using to achieve this. The men and women who worked there gave their all to please him. The welcome we got was an example of things to come during the next week. Men fell over themselves to help us, carried our bags to the rooms allocated by our self appointed team leader, David Wales, who looked more like a sergeant major than a retired Nurse.
I met a quiet Dr Pavan Kohli for the first time and went on a grand round of the hospital to see all the patients admitted for surgery during the next five days of the camp. The ever ebullient Dr Sunil Nadkarni, who I had met before in Newcastle, accompanied us for part of the ward round and he seemed as excited as a kid at a Christmas party. As we moved from one patient to the next, I soon started to realize the extent of the problem I would face. It filled me with excitement and a sense of challenge. I was going to bring to the villagers of the Konkan region, a procedure which would help them get back to their normal life. Some of them had not walked for months and one was stuck in a wheelchair provided by the hospital for free. They were so poor that they could not afford to see a doctor let alone have a hip or a knee replacement. I knew I was going to be busy for the next six days.
Next day, off we went to the Medical school auditorium, which put our lecture theatres back in Newcastle to shame, for a grand and yet simple, welcoming reception followed by a CME program for the doctors in the surrounding region. I could not stay for long as we were starting with my first uni-compartmental knee replacement that morning. I missed most of the social side of camp as I was stuck in the operating theatre from morning till late at night. There was baby showers for dispossessed women of the region, visit to the local school and the women’s center.
My team in theatres!!
I ended up performing twenty three knee and hip replacements during the week. It soon became a routine to start the day with an excellent vegetarian Indian breakfast and operating through the day followed by a ward round ending around 9 or 10 at night. Lunch was often a quick bite in the surgeon’s room, sitting on a couch meant for rest. This routine was broken when Sanjay suggested that I should give a talk on Harappan civilisation to the volunteer group and the students and staff of the hospital and medical school. The talk on the Story of Indus Valley Civilisation was well received by one and all.
It was all over so quickly, I thought. The week had gone by very fast indeed. The highlight was on the last day of the camp when we were felicitated by Kaka Maharaj. All the girls had been given Sarees and the local nurses helped them dress up and they all looked fabulous in their colourful sarees. The local tailor had a bumper business stitching up their blouses. All the men wore new shirts given by Kaka Maharaj the day before.
After the evening meal we found ourselves sitting in a quaint little railway station, Sarwade waiting for the night train to Mumbai. The sleeper was very comfortable and the conductor was very helpful and got all of us to sleep in the same compartment. My dear friend, Seema’s driver picked me up at Dadar station, teeming with traders with trucks loaded with vegetables for the early morning market.
Flight to Bangalore was uneventful and the next week would be full of meetings, newspaper interviews and lectures. That is another story for another time!!