TEN years ago Dr Vijay Bangar started a clinic helping 200 of the poorest people in India. This year he helped 8,000. Catherine Scott met the man behind Slum Doctor.
THEY came in their droves, men, women, young and old, some travelling more than 100 km despite crippling illnesses. They all had one aim; to see the foreign doctors who had come to help them in the Slum Doctor camp.
Some, including an elderly lady who had needed a hip replacement for three years, could hardly walk. Others, blinded by cataracts, needed the help of family or friends to attend the camp in a small village in the Punjab region of India. Most were suffering from illnesses easily treatable in the UK, but in a country where free healthcare is just a dream their diseases could prove fatal. Once having made the trip they then had to queue patiently, segregated by sex, to see the 30-man team of medics which included 15 doctors and five audiologists who were visiting for just three days offering free treatment.
Working 12 hours a day the team of volunteers, many from West Yorkshire but some from across the UK and beyond, treated an incredible 8,000 people. Some needed hearing aids, some needed eye surgery others needed medicines for diabetes, others needed on-going medical care which was organised and paid for them.
All this was made possible by the 30-strong volunteers and one man in particular, Dr Vijay Bangar, a diabetes consultant at Calderdale and Huddersfield hospitals and an expert in his field.
“Our remit was to see every person that came through our doors,” explained Dr Bangar. “No one was turned away. We saw some very poorly patients, some of whom required urgent hospital treatments. We purchased drugs locally and dispensed them as required. We arranged for operations to be carried out at a local charity hospital. We were overwhelmed by the love and respect from these people some of whom had nothing, but were grateful for the help we gave them.”
Over the three days 300 eye operations were organised, 300 hearing were aids fitted, 50 general medical and gynaecological operations, 10 hip and knee operations and one neurosurgical case were carried out.
Dr Bangar had the idea for the Slum Doctor project ten years ago.
“I had been visiting India to study traditional Indian medicines from a monk. He suggested offering Western-style medicine alongside his alternative approach to healthcare.”
“I started by myself at first seeing around 200 people. I couldn’t operate on my own and so I started to ask around to see if people would be willing to join me.” It is also a project very close to Dr Bangar’s heart as his own parents came from the Punjab region of India before moving to the UK.
Seven years ago the first official Slum Doctor camp was held and the charity was born, offering free healthcare to some of the poorest people in the planet, many living in the slums, hence the name.
They are run in conjunction with two Indian charities – Baba Braham Dass Charitable Trust and Sant Sarwan Dass Charitable Trust.The collaborative group advertised the clinic, which was locally called a “Camp”, using banners, local radio and TV, attracting publicity from “door darshan TV news”, the Indian equivalent of the local BBC news. The camp was inaugurated by Mr SR Laddar, Chief Commisioner of Punjab, who commended the team for their efforts.
“Every year the camps get bigger and bigger as word spreads. We see what specialists we have volunteering and then we offer those services to the people.”
Dr Bangar admits that many of the things they see are shocking and it is impossible not to be affected by what he sees.“When you see a severely malnourished child with an extended belly through hunger and half the size they should be because their father is an alcoholic and there is no income, it does make you wonder how that can happen in 2011 in a country where there is a lot of wealth. But that wealth is not filtering down to those who need it most. So all we can do is to do our best to help those that we can and try make a difference to their lives.
“You see patients with a complete spectrum of disease, from conditions that can be treated costing pennies, with life-changing results. There are also complex conditions, requiring much investigation to diagnose.
“I remember seeing a very sick little boy who was malnourished and underweight with a rare blood disorder that had taken the lives of his two elder siblings.
“His younger sister was also afflicted with the same condition but their parents could not afford for treatment.
“We managed to secure hospital admission for both these siblings and hope they have a chance of survival. We can make life-changing interventions.
“Helping others and making a difference I find very humbling and rewarding. One thing it definitely does, it makes me grateful for health care we have in the UK.”
Professor Dennis McGonagle, an academic at the University of Leeds, went back to his medical roots as a rheumatologist by joining the trip and helping scores of people with arthritis and joint problems.
“Having seen Slumdog Millionaire I had some idea of what to expect but it is hard to put into words when you see the reality. We carried out around 20 joint operations but we could really have done with some physiotherapists.”
Although he fell ill while on the trip Prof McGonagle plans to take part in future projects
Opthalmologist Antonio Aguirre who also joined Slum Doctor for the first time this year said nothing could prepare him for what he found in India.
“It is a different world to ours in understanding and experience,” he explained.
“Most people live on very little and yet when you help them they invite you to their home and to havea meal with them. They are so grateful and so generous.” Mr Aguirre said he saw many people, including children, blinded by cataracts. An operation means they were able to see again, something which would not have happened if it had not been for Slum Doctor.
“There are good doctors and hospitals in India but most people just can’t afford to pay for it,” he adds. “Their Government needs to do more to make sure that they get good access to healthcare. There is a lot of wealth but there is a lot of poverty.”
Close to the hospital where the camp is run there is school, run by the monastery for children from the slums.
So moved was Dr Bangar about their plight that he has extended Slum Doctor’s role to try to get sponsors for these children, most who would not go to school unless they were sponsored.
“There are around 600 children at the school and we have managed to get sponsors for around 40 to 50 of them. Just a few pounds a month makes sure that they get an education and the opportunity to get out of the slums and make a life for themselves.”
The charity also organises fund raising events all year round to pay for the camps although the volunteers all fund themselves it still costs around £20,000 a year.
The next camp is planned from Friday, March 23, to Sunday, March 25, 2012 and Dr Bangar is already making plans and is returning to India next month. “I would love to see a permanent clinic there so that people can get our help all year round.”
THE SLUM DOCTOR STORY
The group originally started out in 2001 specialising in delivering medical care to slum / deprived communities in the developing world.
The group was small to start with, and has gradually grown. It was felt that it should be formalised, resulting in a non-profit- making company being formed in 2009. This was subsequently registered as a charity in the United Kingdom with the Charities Commission.
For more information on Slum Doctor or to find out how you can sponsor a child www.slumdoctor.co.uk or find ‘Slumdoctor Project’ on Facebook.