This week the rainstorms haven’t been as intense, and it really is a welcome change. I now have a much better understanding why India’s population has so many skin diseases, it is incredible what our skin endures with these kind of conditions, we go from a hot and humid day to a rainy day, so our clothes never really get a chance to dry out completely, we all smell like dead rats, a bit like what your clothes smell if you forget them in the washing machine for a while. We clean our clothes by hand in a pot, which we leave soak for about one hour in some water mixed with powdered soap, we then attempt to remove the most dirt possible by scrubbing with our hands (Long live the automatic clothes washer), we then wring the clothes to remove as much water as possible, and we then pass on to the rinsing of the clothes, we empty the pot and refill it with clear water, it doesn’t take long and the water is no longer clear, we then mix everything for a few minutes, and we then wring the clothes as best we can, and since we can’t hang our clothes outside because of the constant rain, we hang them inside and try to dry them, as much as possible, and since we can never get our clothes to completely dry because of the humidity and the constant rain, we will, with time start having that particular dead rat smell.
When the sun finally comes out, it doesn’t get much better, because even though we tried to remove as much soap as we could from our clothes when we washed them , there is always some left in the fibers, and when we get some hot and humid days, where the sun is shining we get a very special chemical reaction between the soap residue and our perspiration, this gives a perpetual burning and itching sensation, if you want to make a little fortune, come and install an automatic washer and dryer next to the residences….
All joking aside, it’s a difficult situation, but we have the good fortune of knowing it’s only temporary, the people who live here don’t have that luxury, they know they cannot escape this situation.
I have some news about the land purchase. We have finally come to terms with the present landowner, I don’t have all the details right now, but I will let you know in the weeks to come. We must now make sure that the land has a free and clear title and that there are no leans against it, we must check in three different regions (Amtala, Kolkata and Delhi). This should take about a week and then if everything goes well we will register the land and will receive the proper paperwork I will let you know all the details as they occur.
My week with the Sisters was very nice in spite of Sister Trislet’s absence, she was hospitalized at the end of last week, with a high fever that she caught in Kalighat (Mere Teresa’s dying house) I was told today that she is getting better even though she is still very sick, so, thank you to all who have included her in their prayers.
Yesterday the 9th of July was a very somber day we lost a patient in Kalighat. I stayed by her bedside and she died at 13h30. She was a woman who suffered from an advanced case of uterus cancer. She was admitted last week, her cancer was generalized and she was in extreme constant pain. when we arrived on Tuesday morning she was lying in a huge pool of her blood, she hadn’t called the « massy » (Indian woman) during the night because she didn’t want to bother anyone.
That morning we washed her and put on a diaper (a real one, like the ones we have in North America) in order to absorb the blood she was loosing. She suffered tremendously before she died. In the end she was unable to swallow any kind of medication we tried to give her, and when the nurse tried to give her the medication by injection her veins had become so small and frail that they would rupture every time she tried.
This has been a very hard, long and painful experience for me, to accompany this woman to her death, but it was even more so for her because she was conscious through the constant pain, almost until the end.
The 3rd and 4th of July were excellent days for swimming lessons. The rain started at 3am and didn’t let up until late in the morning. When I left for work, I had water over my ankles and when I came home at the end of the day, I had water up to my thighs. It was the first time in my life that I saw buses making waves like a boat. Since the wheels of our bus were completely submerged under the water, we barely had any braking power and every time the driver would apply the brakes to let some people off, the whole bus would vibrate beyond belief. We could feel our whole body shake from the bottom of our feet all the way to the top of our head. From inside the bus it was sort of funny to see all this water around us but when it came time to get off the bus, all of a sudden it wasn’t so funny anymore. People walking on the sidewalks had water up to the middle of their thighs, but when our bus passed by, the waves would move the level of the water up to their privates, and many a man let out a death cry when the water would come up that high. I can tell you from personal experience that it really seizes you when you unexpectedly get water to that level. Not only is the coldness of the water unpleasant but you also have to deal with the color of the water which is certainly not clear spring water. For the first time I saw the drivers of Calcutta driving slowly.
They didn’t have much choice with the buses being so light in the water, causing them to have very little control, they drove the buses very slowly and in straight lines. Even then the buses ran all day. Some of the roads were completely flooded and therefore closed, for those that dared go onto those streets, they had water up to their waists.
The Sisters were happy and relieved to see the volunteers that had braved the storm to come in to work and help them. Breakfasts those mornings were quite simple and dry. Many deliveries were unable to make it into town, including the bananas and other fresh products. The patients received only 3 slices of bread with butter only on the first slice in order to make sure there would be enough for everyone, they would dip the pieces of bread in their tea in order to make them less dry.
The fact that we were so few to actually make it in to work those morning, made the work that much more strenuous, we needed to get the same tasks done but with half the volunteers we usually have. The Sisters coming from the main head quarters in Kalighat to help us, were unable to make it in, because the driver did not show up.
We worked very hard but the day was nonetheless pleasant, everyone gave their all, and all were joyful in their work. The few Sisters that were present and who live in the building were laughing and joking with us, they really have an extraordinary sense of humor.
When I finished my day and made it back to my room, I hurriedly washed myself because I was very hungry and I knew that I had one Mango fruit left from the night before, I really felt privileged because no fresh fruit deliveries had made it into the city because of the bad weather.
Well to my great surprise, an uninvited guest had also found himself quite lucky today, because when I went to get the Mango I discovered it was almost completely eaten, the rat that crawls around the dormitory at night had ripped open the plastic bag and had enjoyed a stolen meal for the day.
Lesson of the day, I mustn’t keep any food in the room from now on, the only problem is that he doesn’t know that, and he will always return to check for another free meal.
One of the women that had a severe injury to her left foot, had to have it amputated this week, it is unimaginable that this was caused by a simple fall. This woman comes from a small village, outside of Calcutta. Her family being very poor and living in a small hut with a floor made of bare earth they could not afford to purchase the necessary disinfectants and bandages to take care of the open wound on her foot. She did the best she could and would go to the nearby creek in her village to wash her wound. With the water being so badly contaminated with all kinds of bacteria and waste, it didn’t take much time before her wound was completely infected and worms started to reproduce inside her open wound. Several months later all the members of her family searched in every place they could in order to gather enough money to pay for a simple train ride to Calcutta in hopes that she could be helped at Mother Teresa’s refuge.
The mobile team found her close to « Horawh Station » and they brought her to Kalighat, but unfortunately it was too late because the infection was too deep and severe to be able to save her foot. The physiotherapist that works in Calcutta, has already prepared an exercise chart to help reinforce her right leg and also to avoid the atrophying of her left leg muscles. She has been assigned to me until my departure to help her do her exercises and help her recover the ability to walk. With these exercises both her legs will be strong enough to receive an artificial limb next year. The healing process of the bone and skin around the amputation area, usually takes about 9 months before it can support the pressure from the artificial limb. These artificial limbs are very rudimentary, just a wooden leg with some straps.
This week I was washing some women in the water room, it is a very crude and basic washing. The patient will sit or lay down on a granite counter and beside them is a basin filled with some cold water. We use a small hand held bowl to take some water from the basin and we proceed to pour this cold water on the heads of the patient. We then take what looks like a pot scrubbing pad, although not as rough and we scrub this pad on a soap bar and then proceed to wash the patient including their hair. We rinse using the same method and we dry them with what is essentially a dish cloth. For the patients who have a problem of incontinence we wrap a piece of cloth that is no thicker than a dish cloth in the form of a diaper and tie a knot in the middle and then we dress them.
For the washing of the clothes, we use basins that are approximately 4 feet in width by about 6 feet in length. First, we soak the clothes in a basin in order to remove any excrements. In an other basin, using a stick we wash the clothes. We then transfer the clothes into a shallow basin about 12 inches deep an 4 feet in length where we stamp down the clothes with our feet. The clothes are brought to a large basin for a first rinse and then into a second basin for the final rinse. The last step, the clothes are folded in half and wrapped around a wooden bar and wrung to remove as much water as possible. The clothes are put in a wicker basket and brought up to the roof to be hung and dried.
The monsoons are not stable this year, they come and go; the temperature is constantly shifting from hot to cold, and because of this we have had many electrical storms, with some torrential rain falls and cyclones. The local people tell us that it is abnormally hot for this time of the year.
Because of the high temperatures, the airborne pollution has trouble dissipating into the atmosphere and therefore causes a greater concentration of pollutants, which is already normally very high to start with. There is so much smog in the air, that some days I feel a burning sensation in my nostrils when I breathe.
Almost everyone here suffers from some form or other of respiratory infection, mostly due to the infernal temperatures. As for me, I have had a cold since my arrival one month ago, but fortunately I don’t have any fever.
There are many regions in the area that are presently dealing with fever outbreaks. Fever really is our number 1 enemy; we have a terrible time trying to control someone’s high fever when the outside temperature is so hot.
Nowadays Kalighat has added another vocation to it’s existing list, which already included taking care of the dying and of the homeless, they also take care of patients who need treatment for asthma attacks and for any fever or infections. These patients are mostly poor workers who cannot afford both food and medication in order to survive. Therefore the sisters offer the medication without charge to those who need it. Each morning the workers come by, to receive doses of antibiotics until the infection and fever is eliminated.
The work here with the sisters is as usual very enjoyable; the newly appointed sister in charge, Sister Tricelet puts a lot of emphasis that we must all work with love and compassion. Everyone in time has learned to cherish her very authoritative and disciplined manners towards the patients and the volunteers, because you realize that it’s done to make everyone’s life easier with the proper organization. This woman beams with the love she carries with her in memory of Mother Teresa, who herself helped so many of her brothers and sisters in Calcutta and especially here in Kalighat where she had her first home for those in need.
As for the pictures of Nirmal Hriday (Kalighat) I will be able to share them with you only at the end of my trip, because we respect a certain rule that no picture may be taken without permission. We only get that permission on the last day of our work here. I will take as many pictures as I can and will put them on the website.
For those of you, who have asked me include them in my prayers, know that you are always part of my daily prayers. It brings me strength to think about each one of you and the efforts you have given to this cause. I will also take a picture of Mother Teresa’s gravesite to put on the website.
To all the young people who have contributed to the efforts of the fund raising, your pictures are creating quite and excitement. Everyone here wants to know who you are and what your names are. They wish they could personally meet you and give you their thanks. If only you could see how their faces light up with joy and the appreciative smile that spreads along their lips when they finally get to see a picture of all those that have put so much effort to make all the things being done to help them possible. A thousand prayers and thank-you are sent your way from each and everyone here.
Many new patients have been brought to Kalighat this week, one of them is a patient that has severe burns to half of her face, her breasts, part of her left shoulder and her right shoulder to the tip of her fingers of that arm. I don’t know what happened, but the worst part for her is that she is still conscious. From her right arm parts of the flesh were peeling and falling away as we led her to a bed. For now she has been given some sedatives, and we have applied some white cream, and all this has been covered with gauze and a special kind of paper, it’s a technique that has been developed for certain types of burns.
There are also two women who have suffered some trauma to their feet, which will probably lead to amputation, in both cases you can clearly see parts of bones, tendons and muscle which are no longer covered by any skin or flesh on the top half of their feet.
There is this one old woman who was brought in, who was starving, and I was having a hard time keeping up and supplying her with much needed food. She seems to have suffered a stroke, because half of her body is no longer mobile. She looked like a newly hatched chick, with her mouth wide open, with almost no teeth left, so she chews mostly on her gums and pretty much swallows what she has, whole, and reopens her mouth quickly for the next portion of food. I had to give her a second serving because she was not filled with only the first one, after which she drank a glass of water, and ate a few pieces of mango and immediately felt asleep.
In the male ward, a young man in his thirties, is lying on the bed and you can clearly see he is missing all of his genitalia, no penis, no scrotum and the region close to his rectum is still very infected, and all around this area is an open wound. Teresa tell me that when he arrived he was infested with worms, and it is these worms that have done all this damage.
Still in the men’s side, there are also quite a few that have severe wounds to their feet, but they seem well underway to recovery.
I can’t help but admire all these people that are suffering greatly but do not complain about their fate. Just having a roof over their heads, food in their stomachs, and a feeling of security that comes with having time to recover fulfills them, and they suffer without a word.
Of course when it’s time to clean and redo the bandages you see some tears, grin and bear it attitude throughout the painful procedure. Once the task is accomplished, you will not hear any sort of complaints. Never does anyone ask for their medication or food in advance, they patiently wait for it to be given to them. They are really survivors considering the fact that they do not have the quantity and quality of food we have in North America.
Living here, makes me realize how lucky we are to have such a quantity and variety of foods in our homes, here workers eat without exception the same thing every day of every week, contrary to us in North America, who eat for pleasure; …they eat to survive….. Since my arrival the menu has been the same, Rice, Potatoes, Eggs, Coconut and some tea. Some are lucky and will have once a week some fish or chicken, I am of course talking about the average worker of Calcutta and not of the poor who live in the streets or those who can afford a better life in the more prosperous cities of India.
We are so fortunate to live in such abundance in America. Thank-you to all of you who have shared your abundance this year with those less fortunate.
Everything went quite well last week at the Sister’s place, even with all the changes that have happened. Sister Peline who had been in charge of the Dying Destitute of Mother Theresa for the past few years, was transferred to Singapore last year. It is now Sister Trislet who is replacing her. Many rules have been changed since she has taken over, but overall we have learned to cope and the work is just as interesting as always. The sisters are now in charge of applying bandages and giving out medication, which gives us more time to spend with the patients and help the ones who cannot feed themselves during the meals.
Many of these patients are without any family to help, so just the fact that we hold their hands and listen is of great comfort to them. I have also restarted to practice my skills as a physiotherapist because many of these patients are in dire need of exercise. All those who have been in closed and cramped areas and have passed the majority of their time bent over and resting on their heels, are no longer able to completely stretch their legs. We must therefore massage their legs and slowly stretch them out until they can regain their full range of motion, we then help them to stand up and start to walk around and strengthen their muscles. The goal here is to encourage them to return to a normal routine of life. Mostly because of the pain, they lack the self-motivation to exercise by themselves, but with us there encouraging them; they are making some wonderful progress.
We presently have a lot more men then women in Kalighat. There are many varied cases here, such as burns, severe injuries to feet and hands, malaria, gout, high fevers, flu, pneumonia, asthma, cancer, skin cancer, boils, dehydration, etc….
The only volunteer nurse on staff in Kalighat is Theresa Volpato, she has been working with the Sisters 9 months out of every year, for the last few years, she takes care of some of the bandages needed by the men, I followed her and offered any assistance as best I could. She is an excellent and gentle hearted woman, in whom you can feel the teachings of Mother Teresa and her principals of working with love in your heart and in your actions. I have much admiration for this simple and honest woman who gives so much of herself to help others who live in poverty in Calcutta.
This week on Wednesday the monsoons started, they arrived about one week later than usual; they should have started around the 8th of this month. Starting at dawn it was as dark as if we were in the middle of the night. The constant lightning was a beautiful sight but the accompanying thunder was very loud and frightening, The rain poured out of the sky, so much so that within the first hour 10 inches had accumulated, but luckily it calmed down and it accumulated much more slowly around us. As I made my way along the AJC Bose Road, I had water up to my knees and the people and animals that I met along the way were completely drenched and shivering from the cold, I immediately went to the small market that was nearby to buy some towels and I distributed these with some hot tea to those who needed.
Here in Calcutta, when the rains come, everyone tries to shelter themselves as best they can, but when it comes down very hard, no one stands a chance because of the drastic temperature drop in the absence of the sun. If the sky clears slightly during the day and the sun is allowed to shine it’s warm rays, then most get a chance to dry off and recover a bit of their bodily heat, but if the sun stays hidden behind the storm clouds, then the people stay wet and cold and then the chance of catching pneumonia is almost assured.
Many of you have asked me if I have seen a difference from year to year when I visit the region, one major difference that I can see, is the cleanliness. In the past, during the monsoons we could see waste and feces floating on the roads when the water would accumulate. This year I found it to be much cleaner, even thought the water that accumulated was dirty there wasn’t an enormous amount of waste and feces in the streets. This will greatly help in controlling epidemic outbreaks which are very common during the monsoon season.
Now that Joseph is feeling better, we were able to visit a few pieces of land. He his eye on one in particular, it’s only about 1 kilometer from here, and he is sure it would be perfect to build the women’s refuge.
Joseph has assured me that he will personally take pictures during all stages of the construction and he will send us the pictures if I cannot be there myself in February 2008. On our side we will send a newsletter to all churches and schools who contributed to the fund raising of this project, to show them the finished project including pictures and descriptions.
Presently, Joseph is negotiating the price of the land, and as soon as I have some new informations, I will transmit them to you all. Until then no pictures can be taken because we are negotiating using the traditional customs in the area, and by experience that means a long and hard negotiation.
On my side I am going to find a place to live in Calcutta, so I can continue my work with the Sister’s missionary of Charity (Mother Teresa’s congregation) on a 3 day a week basis, after which I will come back to Amtala, so I can continue working with Joseph on the land and refuge (budgets, plans, etc) and make sure everything is progressing as it should. At the same time I will participate in the weekly Saturday clinic in Ashabari, and I will keep you informed of what is going on by using this diary.
This week at the clinic of AshaBari, I met a man who has epilepsy and unfortunately suffered a seizure while riding the workers train, which is always overloaded and everyone hangs on as well as they can in order to make the trip. When he suffered the seizure, he fell from the train and landed across the tracks, and the train ran over him, cutting off his two legs and part of his left hand. He has been seeking refuge in the shelter for the last year and Brother Das will try and find some artificial limbs for him.
I never thought I would one day be looking forward to the rainy season. The heat is oppressive and suffocating. I am pretty much confined to staying in Amtala because the trip to Calcutta and back would take 4 hours by bus and with this heat it is dangerous to suffer a heat stroke. I tried it earlier this week and it took me two days to recover. Let me describe what that trip entailed : It was 2 hours inside an overcrowded bus that contains twice as many passengers then it is conceived for. No matter if we are standing or sitting down it is completely exhausting. You must imagine standing in this continually jarring bus ride with all these people pressing against you on every side. The heat makes everyone perspire but since we are all so closely packed together it is very hard to get any sort of personal space in order to stretch or change positions. You would think that if you were sitting in one of the seats it would be much better, you are quite mistaken because when you are sitting down, all the passengers that are standing will deposit their belongings on you, if they don’t do this, they cannot stand solidly and keep balanced with the movement of the bus and an injury is sure to occur. You must experience first hand a bus ride in India to appreciate what I am trying to relate in this description. Just imagine sitting on a bus seat with too many people per seat, having everyone around you deposit their luggage on, and around you, people standing inches away from your face so that it blocks any kind of fresh air from reaching your nostrils. Well when we finally arrive at our destination after 2 hours, my body is aching from every muscle from trying to keep myself balanced because of the constant jarring and movement of the bus, and the ever present extreme heat and the lack of fresh air, makes me feel completely drained of all my energy, and you know what?…. the day has only begun. I know full well that at the end of my day I will need to do the same trip back. I must really find a foothold in Calcutta so that I can spend some time in each place without having to make this exhausting trip every time between Amtala and Calcutta.
This week Joseph and I were supposed to go search and buy a suitable piece of land for the refuge that we want to build. Unfortunately we will need to postpone everything because Joseph is sick. He seems to have gotten infected by some virus that we think a small girl brought with her when she visited the clinic on Saturday. Just like her, he has a high fever and a deep cough. He has been bedridden all day and his wife Lily who is a nurse takes good care of him. Life is so different here, we have absolutely no control over our time schedule, it really is the temperature and our immune system that dictate what we can or cannot accomplish on any given day.
Since I couldn’t do much here to make my projects advance, I decided to go to Calcutta, and so I left very early this morning, around 6am. The trip was not all that bad, if you exclude the accident we had with a rickshaw scooter going from Zoradocan to Amtala, The roads being extremely narrow and with the extreme heat, people’s patience were very thin, and you get the impression everyone is in a survival instinct frame of mind, even when they are driving. It is so narrow that many times vehicles pass so close to each other that the mirrors or handles scratch the other vehicles close to them. TThis morning we were lucky, there were only three of us seated in the back seat of the rickshaw, sometimes we are 4 or 5. The only thing I remember seeing is the huge front bumper of a transport truck, bearing down on us as I looked to the right side of the rickshaw, I barely had time to move my body to the left and pull my shoulder in, then the truck’s front end passed inches away from my head and ripped the top of the rickshaw. At that point everyone left their vehicles and the two drivers started arguing for about 15 minutes. You can well imagine the agitation, the accusing words of incompetence between them. Finally the crowd that has gathered around us, gave reason to the rickshaw driver and we were now on our way again with a newly ripped « sunroof ». The rickshaw driver has to absorb the damages and the truck driver is considered incompetent by everyone, and it’s considered history and everyone goes back to their routines. We finally arrived in Calcutta at 8:30am. I went to do my errands on foot, all the time having the heat and humidity stealing what little energy I had left.
It’s always surprising to see so much poverty in Calcutta, people living on the streets and under overpasses and bridges. These humans are forced to live like animals, sleeping directly on the hard ground. You can see the fleas jumping in their hair because there are so many of them, let’s not forget the fleas on their bodies and the scabs that have formed on their skin, that they continually pick and scratch to alleviate the itching. These kinds of conditions are inhumane.
When I see so many people suffering these kinds of conditions on a daily basis, I find my little 1-1/2 room apartment to be like paradise, I have the utmost respect and admiration for their courage to endure these difficult conditions, they deserve all the help we can give them.
Our plane just touched down and it’s 5:30am. The heat and humidity are intense and I find it hard to breathe. No matter how much I prepare myself for these kind of conditions, it seems that every fiber of my body forgets what it was like the time before, and it’s a surprise every time.
The second half of my 11 hour flight between London and Calcutta was very turbulent, we were unable to find any kind of real sleep because we were constantly being asked to put our seats back up and to tie our seat belts. Therefore I was truly exhausted when I arrived at the airport, but when I saw my brother Joseph, patiently awaiting my arrival with his usual friendly and warm smile, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit of welcoming energy coming back into me. Since we had arrived very early in the morning, we were able to avoid the rush hour traffic and we made it to Amtala in a little over one hour.
I don’t have much of an appetite (one small meal per day and a snack in the evening is sufficient). I know I must be offending some of the people around me, but with this suffocating and ever present heat, I am just not hungry. For them it’s always an honor to prepare and serve food to a guest. They always serve us first and they are careful to pick the best pieces for us and they feel content in this knowledge. I try my best to accept their kindness and appreciate the food laid out for me. Before I head out to sleep, Lily prepares a nice warm glass of milk, in which she puts some liquid vitamins and serves it to me with 2 cookies.
Tonight I made it into bed for 21:30, my first two days have really drained me. As I get ready to lay down, a large insect scurries along the side of my luggage….Well I guess I’ll be sharing my sleeping quarters tonight, it doesn’t seem to want to leave and I am much too exhausted to start chasing after it.
No need for an alarm clock to get me up in the morning, because at 3:45 am there is a bell that rings to announce to the villagers that it’s time to get up and say the morning prayers as is Muslim tradition, they give thanks to the Lord for his protection during the night and to ask for his blessing for the day to come.
The days are still un-relentlessly hot, Joseph explains to me that it is abnormally hot this year, even the people from the surrounding area are having problems adapting because the heat came suddenly instead of gradually like in the years past, so they haven’t been able to slowly acclimate their bodies.
What makes things even more difficult is that we are experiencing planned black outs because of certain economic factors. They usually occur in the afternoon or in the evenings and sometimes in the middle of the night. I must plan the use of my laptop, the charging of my batteries for my digital camera and the use of the ventilator that is in my room. I find it difficult but at the same time it makes me conscious of how lucky and how much we take it as a given that we will have electricity available whenever we need in Canada.
For me Saturday was my first ASHABARI clinic since my arrival. From week to week I will tell you of the different patients we meet and how we can truly impact another human being life.
The first case that I want to tell you about is a sweet little girl who is 9 years old, her name is Shoripa, and she suffered multiple burns on her neck and chest. The skillet that her mother was using to cook some « Chapitas » tipped over spilled onto her which made her clothes catch fire. Part of the money we have collected in 2006 permitted her to receive the necessary skin grafts to help her, Every day she comes to the center to do the exercises required to improve the flexibility of her neck and arms.