How a charity is saving lives on passage to India

Queues of people - many of whom have travelled miles - wait patiently to see the doctors at the Slumdoctor Project at the camp held in March 2011
Queues of people - many of whom have travelled miles - wait patiently to see the doctors at the Slumdoctor Project at the camp held in March 2011

THEY came in their droves, many walking miles, and all of them waiting patiently and calmly.

This was not some huge arena-staged pop concert with hordes of fans waiting to see their idols but people from one of the world’s most poverty-stricken regions, in dire need of urgent medical care.

In the space of just three days, around 8,000 individuals were seen, people of all ages, men, women, children, the young and the old, those with straight-forward conditions, those with more serious afflictions, some in danger of dying.

And all of them received life-saving treatment thanks to a 30-man team which included 15 doctors and five audiologists. This was the 2011 medical camp organised by UK-based charity Slumdoctor Project, which was staged in the village of Phillaur, in the state of Punjab, India. And among the dedicated team of medics was Dr Vijay Bangar, consultant diabeteologist at Calderdale Royal Hospital - founder of the charity.

“Our remit was to see every person who came through our doors. No-one was turned away,” he says. “We saw some very poorly patients, some of whom needed urgent hospital treatments. It was a matter of life or death for some.”

Working with a local charity hospital, the Slumdoctor team made sure that even those requiring surgery did not go untreated.

“We were able to buy drugs locally and dispensed them as they were needed and arranged for operations to be carried out at the local charity hospital. But we were overwhelmed by the love and respect from these people, some of whom had absolutely nothing. They were so grateful for the help we gave them.

“Many of the locals worked with us as volunteers, organising he queues and providing food and one of the volunteers who turned up was a man who we had treated at last year’s Slumdoctor camp. He’d received eye surgery and he was so grateful for the way it had changed his life that he came back to help. It was very touching,” he says.

Vijay was born in Birmingham (his parents moved to the UK from India in the 1960s) and studied at Birmingham University Medical School as well as in Edinburgh. He worked at a number of hospitals before moving to Calderdale as the new hospital opened in 2001.

A fellow of the Royal College, he reveals that an interest in meditation and spirituality was to sow the seed for the founding Slumdoctor.

He became involved with two Indian charities - the Baba Braham Charitable Trust and the Sant Sarwant Dass Charitable Trust which together set up and now run a hugely successful school, the Baba Braham Dass High School which educates around 600 children of all ages.

“These children are from the poorest areas. You cannot believe the conditions they live in. But this school gives them the opportunity of making a life for themselves, it gives them the chance to radically change their lives and become independent and able to escape this poverty. Over the years some pupils have gone on to be successful people,” he says.

Vijay and his father have been very active with the charities over the years, helping to set up an IT suite and encouraging people to sponsor a child for just £8 per month.

“We have formed links with so many people and I have given lots of talks but then I wanted to get the work out there on a bigger scale, I wanted to reach a wider public. I realised that the title Baba Braham meant little to people back here in the UK so came up with the idea of Slumdoctor - after all health is key in all of this, health and education. We aim to empower and educate through our work,” he explains.

The Slumdoctor camps then began in earnest, with the very first camp, in 2002 attracting a few hundred patients. Over the years the project has blossomed with the 2011 camp in March being the biggest to date - helped by publicity and advertising on Punjab radio and TV.

“We even made it on Door Dashan news which is like the equivalent of the BBC so we knew the word would get out there,” says Vijay.

Over the years he has been able to build up and garner support from many quarters in order to ensure the camps - which are held at Baba Braham High School - run smoothly.

“This year our camp was launched by the Chief Commissioner of Punjab who commended the team. That was fantastic because you really do need to have these people on your side,” he says.

In the course of the three days, 300 eye operations were organised, 300 hearing aids fitted, there were 50 general medical and gynaecological operations carried out, as well as 10 hip and knee operations and one neurosurgical case.

“One woman seeking treatment had fractured her hip three months earlier and walked to camp to see us. How she had coped I don’t know. She must have been in incredible pain.”

An appeal for medics to join the team brought many willing volunteers - among them Halifax GP Dr Navjeet Dua, Calderdale Royal Hospital consultant opthamologist Mr Antonio Agguire Vila-Coro, Harpreet Bahra, PA to Calderdale’s director of Public Health and Mr Dennis McGonagle, Elland-based consultant rheumatologist.

“The experience was amazing,” says Harpreet who reveals she had terrific support from her Calderdale PCT colleagues, who tirelessly fund-raised.

“What Vijay has achieved is incredible because everything runs so smoothly. His parents too work so hard. But it is very humbling to see these people in their droves who come looking for hope to help their illnesses and then look at you with such gratitude when the medicas were able to provide it.”

Dennis agrees: “Slumdoctor is the amazing enterprise it is because of the infrastructure Vijay has put in place. It works like clockwork and people get the help they need. You realise when you’re back in England just how sophisticated and professional the NHS is. People here should be so grateful they have access to it.”

l For information about Slumdoctor and to become involved or support the project visit www.slumdoctor.co.uk or find Slumdoctor Project on facebook or write to Slumdoctor, P.O. Box 769, Halifax, HX1 9PN.