‘I BUILT A HOSPITAL BY SELLING VEGETABLES’
Subhasini Mistry was 33 when her husband died because they couldn’t afford medical treatment. Penniless, and with children to raise, she vowed to build a hospital for the needy. By Trithesh Nandan and Anand Raj OK
Gingerly holding on to his son’s shoulder, Narain Chaudhary is guided out of hospital. Out of his right eye – the other one is heavily bandaged – the 55-year-old spies an elderly lady walking towards him. “Thank you,” he says, recognising her. The woman greets him with namaste, the traditional Indian gesture. Narain says: “If it wasn’t for you and your son, I would have been blind by now.’’ Subhasini Mistry smiles, happy to have helped another patient.
She is not a doctor but she raised money to build and open Humanity Trust, the 100-bed hospital in Hanspukur, in the eastern Indian state ofWest Bengal. She worked as a house maid, on farms, as a bricklayer and selling vegetables by the roadside for more than 40 years to raise Rs300,000 (Dh18,586) to build first a basic shed then a modern concrete structure.
Today, thanks to donations from corporates and wellwishers, it has grown to be a modern Rs10 million hospital. Since it opened in 1993, it has treated more than 250,000 patients free of cost, saving countless lives. But behind the achievement is a tragic tale. “The dream to build a hospital came about after I lost my husband Sadhan Chandra Mistry,” Subhasini explains. “He died because there wasn’t a government hospital close by to take care of him and we didn’t have money to take him to a private hospital. On the day he died – April 13, 1971 – I made a promise to myself that I would see nobody in this village dies due to lack of medical care.’’
Narain, a poor farmer who makes barely Rs100 a day, is grateful. His cataract operation was free and means he can now look after himself. Before, almost blind and with his son, Rakesh Chaudhary, 32, earning barely enough to put food on the table, let alone pay the Rs7,000 surgery fee at a private hospital, Narain had resigned himself to losing his sight.
He heard about Humanity Trust, where doctors perform operations free of cost, through a friend. “The doctors have changed my life,’’ he says. “I can go back to work now.’’
Subhasini, 75, knows exactly how desperate Narain felt before discovering the Trust. After
her husband died, she was poverty stricken and could barely afford two meals a day from the money she earned as a maid and working on farms. A widow at the age of just 33, she struggled to raise her four children – two boys Sujoy and Ajoy, and girls Uttara and Biphala – who ranged in age from four to 14 at the time.
Along with his siblings, Ajoy’s life was changed irrevocably when his father died. “I remember my mother telling us how father, a farmer, came home one night and complained of a pain in his stomach. The only government hospital was around five kilometres away and because it had been raining heavily the roads were flooded and we couldn’t take him there. He was earning around Rs50 a month and we couldn’t afford a private doctor so he remained at home writhing in pain for three days.’’
Finally, Subhasini managed to borrow some money and arranged to take her husband to a hospital 10 kilometres away but it was too late. She could only look on as he slowly lay dying right in front of her eyes. Ajoy doesn’t know what caused his father’s death but believes it could have been treated. “He would have survived if he’d received proper medical attention at the right time.’’
Living in a thatched hut in Hanspukur, in the 24 Parganas district on the outskirts of Kolkata, the widowed mother vowed to give her children a good education and to build a hospital for the poor so no other family had to suffer like they were. With no land of their own to farm and barely any savings, Subhasini struggled to raise her children.
“I had no education. I did not even know how to tell the time,’’ she says. “I decided to work in well-to-do people’s homes cooking, cleaning floors, washing utensils and polishing their shoes to earn some money to look after my children and myself.’’ She earned a total of just Rs50 a month, barely enough to feed her children. “For many months, I also worked in the fields tilling the land, sowing seeds, and weeding... It was hard labour but I had no other options to feed my children.”
Hopes of a better life
Months passed and as the family descended into more poverty, Subhasini took the harrowing decision to put two of her children – Ajoy and Biphala – into a government-run children’s home nearby. “I felt that was the only way the children could get proper food and a good education,’’ she says. “I used to cry many nights not having the children next to me. I would visit them every week and take along some sweets, occasionally clothes and hold them for hours and kiss them. I would tell them the reason they were staying away was so they could have a better life.”
For three or four days a month she would fetch the children from the home and the five of them would be a family again.
She continued to juggle jobs to earn as much as she could and became a vegetable seller as well. “I learnt from some of my friends who were in the business that one can get a good margin from the sale of vegetables so one day, I joined them,’’ she explains.
She chose a corner on Bridge No 4 at the Park Circus railway station in Kolkata. “Every morning, I used to collect green leafy vegetables and tomatoes from farms near my house, load them in a push-cart and take them to a spot I’d identified near the station.”
By the afternoon, her stock would be gone, raising around Rs50. Subshasini would split her earnings with the farm owner, before starting work as a farm labourer.
In the evenings, she would work as a maid. “I was making enough money to keep aside around Rs100 to Rs200 a month for the hospital,’’ she says. “I occasionally used to dip into this to give my children a treat like a set of new clothes, or a school bag, but I was careful and refused to spend anything on myself.’’
It wasn’t long before she realised she could make more money just selling vegetables, and Subhasini gave up her other jobs to concentrate on that. But her fellow vendors laughed. “You want to build a hospital?’’ they jeered. “You cannot even repair your own thatched hut.’’ She
ignored their comments and began saving Rs500 a month. Scrimping and going without, she concentrated on giving her children a good education and saving for the hospital and by 1992, she had Rs80,000.
“Using the money I bought one bigha [around a third of an acre] piece of land in my village on which to build a hospital,’’ she says. Ajoy was by then doing well in his studies and decided to become a doctor so he could help his mother if her dream became reality.
“I encouraged him and gave him all my support. I used to buy him whatever books he needed and finally enrolled him into Calcutta Medical College to study medicine.’’ After college, Ajoy worked washing dishes to help with his college fees and for the hospital fund.
“The fees for medicine were steep, but I was lucky because I received a scholarship from the German government which was offering them to meritorious students in Kolkata,’’ he says. After graduating in 1986 he did a two-year post graduate course in general medicine before taking up a job in a private hospital.
Put the plan into action
In 1993 Subhasini gathered the elders in her village together and told them of her plan. “Some were supportive but a few also laughed at my ambition,’’ she recalls. “They laughed because we had nothing to eat at that point and here we were planning to build a hospital.”
But seeing how earnest she was and realising the mission would benefit them, the majority of villagers began rallying around her. “I told them that I was willing to donate the piece of land and asked the villagers to donate whatever they could to realise the hospital.’’ A tin box was passed around and people contributed whatever they had. The donations totalled Rs926.
Those who could not afford to donate money contributed in kind – some offered bamboo poles, palm leaves, truckloads of earth, and wooden planks. The poorest offered their labour.
By late 1993, a small temporary shed had been put up and her son Ajoy and another volunteer doctor were ready to start work after they finished their shifts at another hospital.
The first day they managed to treat 252 patients. Subhasini had to hold back tears as she watched patients line up outside the shed.
“But this is not enough,’’ she told Ajoy. “We need to build a proper hospital.’’
So she went back to the streets to sell vegetables. Her elder son Sujoy, who had graduated from college, joined her and together they began earning more and saving more. Ajoy began knocking on corporate doors and soon funds began to trickle in – from local residents, companies and charities – and on February 5, 1995, the foundation stone for a proper hospital was laid. A year later, on March 9, 1996 the two-storey Humanity Hospital was opened to the public.
“Today, the same people who laughed at our dream come here for treatment and also support us,” says Ajoy.
There are 38 doctors who take turns in spending three to four hours at the hospital every day. There are also 74 nurses, including Subhasini’s daughter, and around 16 support staff. All of them are volunteers but from this month they will be paid a nominal fee for their services.
The newly built second floor of the hospital houses an intensive-cardiac-care unit, an intensive-therapy unit, a high-dependency unit and a maternity ward was possible due to a major donation from Reliance Industries, a large business house in India.
Keeping medical care affordable for the poor, however, is proving costly for the hospital. Ajoy, as the chairman of the hospital trust, has assumed fundraising duties.
“We have arrived at a cross-subsidisation model,” he explains. “We will charge a reasonable amount for 40 beds and for surgery – between Rs1,000 and Rs5,000 – and keep 60 free of cost. The money from the 40, plus donations from wellwishers, will be used to cover the healthcare needs in all 100.”
It wasn’t what they had wanted – they’d hoped treatment would be free for all – but Subhasini is too old to work now and they rely entirely on donations. The hospital sometimes has had its own good Samaritans. Ajoy’s favourite anecdote is of a patient who was being treated for a cardiovascular accident at Humanity. After surgery, hospitalisation and medicine, costs added up to Rs21,000.
“The man voluntarily gave us Rs50,000 – more than twice his bill!”
Subhasini is happy with the way the hospital has developed but still has a few plans up her sleeve. A new, 50-bed branch in the Sundarbans delta is being set up. “The hospital will be ready in July,” Ajoy says.
In Humanity, as Subhasini prepares to go home, she takes one last look around the hospital.
“This means everything to me.” she smiles. “Whenever a poor patient gets treated by the hospital, I see the face of my husband. This is for him. I have proved that with a strong will to face challenges you can cope with any difficulty in life.”
Subhasini sold vegetables to raise funds for a hospital that now treats hundreds of people. Her son Ajoy, seen far left with his mother, is now a doctor who manages the hospital
Subhasini ensured her children got a good education. It paid off as Ajoy, above, works to realise her dream