Okay. It’s time to come clean. Originally, I was coming to India to volunteer at the Pragati Schools and help make a presskit for them to use to increase their visibility and fundraise. When I was trying to organize my trip, I asked my contact, Arati, if she could find a place for me to stay: maybe a guest house I could rent for the month of July. Arati called her friend Maggie, who helps organize the health program for Pragati. Maggie’s husband Ajit was involved in the housing and real estate business, so Arati reached out to ask if they knew about what sort of options I would have for housing. Much to Arati’s surprise, Maggie responded by saying I was welcome to just stay with her and Ajit. When I arrived here, Maggie explained the work that she did. Yes, she was in charge of the health program for Pragati, but that was really just as an addition to her other work. Maggie is a member of an organization called DCWA: Delhi CommonWealth Women’s Association. They have a center in Delhi, which has a hospital and pharmacy, with a dentist, radiologist, optometrist, and dermatologist, along with general practioners. They work as a social service organization; patients can come and be serviced for barely any money, which is amazing and especially important for the communities in the area who are struggling to make ends meet. DCWA also has a pre-school and a scholarship program where kids from under-privileged families are able to attend on scholarship.
Maggie visits the center often, to help out and take care of business, but her passion project is here in Gurgaon. Downstairs in the basement, there is an ambulance parked next to Maggie’s car. That is Maggie’s ambulance. Twice a week, she drives out to one of the nearby slums, with a volunteer doctor, and sets up a clinic by the side of the road. After parking in whatever shade she can find, she pulls out two fold up tables, and puts fold up chairs around them. One table acts as the doctor’s station, and the other acts as the pharmacy. At the doctor’s station, a volunteer takes patient’s information and money, and then the doctor does their check-up. A new patient is charged 15 rupees to see the doctor. An old patient is charged 10. After the doctor does a check-up and writes a prescription, the patient walks the two feet to the back of the ambulance, where Maggie is waiting at the second table. Here, she has boxes and bottles and cans of pills and lotions and syrups, all donated by the pharmacy at DCWA. Maggie has had no real formal training, but she has been doing this for so many years, she now knows as much as any pharmacist. She takes their prescription and scrutinizes it, reading what the doctor has prescribed. She knows what every medicine is for, and places the right dosage into little paper envelopes or tiny syrup bottles. She then sends the patient back to the doctor, who explains in Hindi the times each medicine is to be taken. A patient gets whatever medicine he needs with no extra cost. Considering the current exchange rate is around 45 rupees to $1, the fact that someone gets a doctor’s check-up and their necessary medicine for 15 rupees is unbelievable.
There is no way for me to express what the experience is like to witness and be a part of this. I have taken to accompanying Maggie every time she goes out for clinic, and each time I go, the experience leaves me at a loss for words. First off, I ride in the back of the ambulance, which in and of itself is a feat; having to fit my fairly large frame in between folding chairs and large hooks hanging from the ceiling (meant to hold IV bags), while a siren rings in my brain. The slums we visit are ones that have popped up next to construction sites, and are usually full of women and children or old men and women waiting for the younger men to come back after work. There is dust everywhere, and we arrive at 4:30pm, when the sun has lowered, but is still excruciatingly hot. There are wild pigs and dogs everywhere, and kids constantly playing in the dirt. Men on motorcycles and pushcarts arrive straight from the construction sites, and women holding newborns that are smaller than my forearm.
The doctor and volunteers are usually middle aged women, and between them and me, there is a gentleness to the way that the whole thing operates. The women who arrive in need of medical attention still find the energy to smile; you can tell they feel comfortable here. It is a tribute to Maggie’s spirit and stamina that she has been doing this long enough to have people recognize her as a trust-worthy place to come to for help.
It's incredibly intense, but it is remarkable the way it makes me focus on what I am doing, and gives me a bizarre sort of clarity. I am sure this sounds like some terrible cliché: “I found purpose handing out medicine to the needy,” but it honestly isn’t as heady as all that. I find it hard to articulate, but it’s much more simple. A task is in front of me, it needs to be done, nothing else matters. Find lotion for the baby with scabies. Find amoxycillin. Pour cough syrup into a bottle. Sign the prescription. Send them back to the doctor's table. I never understood why someone would ever want to be a doctor or a scientist. I have always been in love with the creative impulse—writing, photographing, creating art—and could not comprehend how someone could find joy in the cold molecules of medicine. But for the first time I appreciate that this could be somebody's passion. Because it really is amazing. It helps quiet all the usual anxieties in my head that stress me out, it makes me calm down and focus and work hard on what I'm doing, in the moment. I haven’t stopped my work at Pragati, I’ve just added my work with DCWA. In fact, the two worlds collided the other day, when Maggie took one of the volunteer doctors to Pragati’s schools to provide medicine and check-ups for the kids.
Yes, things are coming together surprisingly well. And whether I find myself at the back of a classroom or the back of an ambulance, my heart is light. I am so blessed to be where I am, loving what I am doing.