I met Arsinga Sabar one July at the Gangabada Swasthya Mela. With much fanfare, the Government had organized this health camp, trumpeting this "special attempt to deliver health care to remote areas." The staff at the NGO where I worked had been asked to inform people in the surrounding villages about the camp.
I had gone to the camp to help. Having spent the entire morning alone, trying to cope with a crowd of over three hundred patients, I was both angry and relieved when the Government doctors arrived past noon. Angry that they could be so indifferent as to turn up so late for this; relieved that the patients could now be seen faster and return home earlier.
But my relief was short-lived. The Government doctors were prescribing medicines without even examining the patients -- "you see, there is no time to see each patient properly," they said. They prescribed injections for everyone -- "you see, this camp is for patient satisfaction," they said.
And I felt like shouting, "No, I don't see."
So I walked out of the steaming hot classroom which was being used as the examination room. I sat on the floor of the verandah of the school building and took my time to examine patients that the field worker, Jaya, referred to me. He had asked several patients with suspected tuberculosis to come for a checkup. One of them sat a short distance away, on the edge of the verandah: a 7 year old boy.
By 2 pm, the sky was overcast with monsoon clouds. Soon there was a heavy downpour accompanied by thunder and strong gusts of wind. Everybody ran into the shelter of the classrooms, but I did not move because I was quite dry and protected. And I noticed that the little boy was still sitting there on the edge of the verandah, even though he was getting drenched by the rain. Then his father ran back out, picked him up and brought him to me, saying he could not walk.
That was how I met Arsinga.
He was thin, pale, and wasted. In obvious pain, he was also hunched by TB of the spine. It had caused his vertebrae to collapse and left him unable to use his legs. The disease had also affected his lymph glands, so that the right side of his neck was full of sores.
My heart sank as I examined him, as I saw how weak he was, how severe the disease was in him. He was with Kutukudi, his grandmother, who had a hacking cough herself. I weighed Arsinga, took a sputum sample from Kutukudi and went on with my examinations. But I could not stop thinking of the boy and his grandmother. Both were seriously sick and all that the Government could offer them was this farce of a clinic.
We started both on anti-TB drugs which Jaya used to deliver to their home each month. Kutukudi had sputum-positive TB and died three months later, in October. Arsinga continued with the treatment.
I was in Gangabada again the next February, examining malnourished children. The first child I saw was Arsinga. But this was a smiling Arsinga. He walked towards me, steadily, on his own two feet, while his proud father looked on. He still had a back deformity, but his neck wounds had healed and he had put on weight. "He even goes to the forest to fetch firewood," Jaya told me happily.
I looked at Jaya, at Arsinga, at his father. And I realized once again that all the months of hard work, the frustrations, were worth this one moment. This one child, back on his feet again, on the road to recovery.