‘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

Friday - - Society -

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

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