Helping them to stand, be counted

Polio Patients

Two years ago Shabnam Alam had travelled all the way from her native town of Amroha in north-western Uttar Pradesh to the St. Stephen's Hospital in Delhi with a hope--rid herself of the residual deformities caused due to polio.

Now a 19-year-old, the girl, who after, multiple surgeries was able to walk using a caliper, visited her doctor with a glimmer of hope in her eyes. “I don’t want to walk with these shoes,” Alam said referring to the calipers she wore. The doctor who was conversing with Metrolife turned his attention towards Alam and responded with a smile. “Their hopes keep on rising. I just pray that I am able to oblige,”he told this paper.

Dr Mathew Varghese, a 45-year-surgeon, and Head, Department of Orthopaedics, St. Stephens Hospital, Tis Hazari, which for decades has been providing free surgery and treatment to polio patients. Even though the World Health Organisation earlier this year declared India a ‘polio free’ country, the number of patients with residual deformities is still on the higher side. In the St. Stephen’s ward alone, 25-30 patients are operated upon every month.

“A man in our village was suffering from polio. Some years back he came back from Delhi and was able to walk properly. When we asked who had treated him, he mentioned about Varghese Sahab,” said 40-year-old Nazural Alam, father of Shabnam. He works as a daily labourer back home. What is more alarming is the fact that these patients, who come from a lower socio-economic background, have hardly any choices, making Dr Varghese their only saviour.

“In today’s times, surgeons are opting for more glamorous procedures which can earn the hospital a lot of money. Now that polio has been eradicated from the country, the disease is neglected by a large chunk of Indian surgeons because it doesn’t get the equal amount of attention as a heart surgery or liver transplant would,” Varghese told Metrolife.
Last year in an interview with a foreign news agency, Dr Varghese had told the journalist that his dream was to see the polio ward of St. Stephen’s empty. While in conversation with Metrolife, he expressed his deepest fear that his dream “may not be realised in my lifetime”.

This, even after he leads a team of 20 surgeons and some funding by the Rotary International.  “The Rotary International has been on the frontline of India’s polio eradication efforts and has helped our cause by funding reconstructive surgeries. But it is never enough. The patients keep on coming, especially from areas like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh,” he said. He added that most of the patients belong to the minority communities.

“The problem with our government is that they see health as an expense and not an investment. I have spent all my life to operate on these patients” who he feels are “more than mere patients, they are people with dreams and aspirations”. Shabnam Alam wants to be a teacher and why should a disease stop her from doing so, asks Dr Varghese.

“I haven’t married because I wanted to dedicate my life to serve the patients,” he added overseeing the polio ward. “Come let me introduce you to them. This is Shaheen, this is Pooja...,” he went on as patients struggled to lift themselves to shake hands with him.

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