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Rotary Reached Out to India for Mercy's Sake

30 November 2019 Written by  By Jay C. Mclaughlin
Published in December 2019 Articles

We Supplied All the Medical Equipment Needed by an Underfunded Calcutta Hospital

I’ve been a member ofRotary for 16 years. My wife Peggy Ann was a charter member of the San Ramon Valley Club, and I was a member for ten years. I am a globe-trotter, having visited five dozen countries, so served as the club’s International Service Director. Peggy and I moved to Discovery Bay in 2002. We would visit the Brentwood Club from time-to-time, but remained so heavily involved with the San Ramon Valley Club that every Wednesday evening we would drive to Danville for the meetings. After 11 years we grew weary of the weekly 100-mile roundtrip drive, so in 2013 we decided to move our membership to the Brentwood Club. It was a good move; I’ve never looked back.

Our first international venture was a pilot project for a woman-owned startup company in Uganda. They had a business plan to make and market a low cost irrigation pump that would be powered by stationary bicycles attached to repurposed pool pumps. A farmer would simply connect hoses between any source of water and his field and then begin pedaling. The idea came through a TED Talk by an ex-plumber, who suggested the device as a way to make use of discarded pumps. We joined several other Rotary Clubs on the project. A fellow Brentwood Rotarian, Howard Bowles, was on the board of directors for Assist International. Their Project 41 division is on a mission “to develop programs that empower the poor to lift themselves out of poverty,” so they were a perfect fit to partner with us on the project. Our goal was to help get the Ugandan business started by assembling 150 of these pumps as proof-of-concept prototypes and distributing them to farmers as replacements for the inefficient one-bucket-at-a-time method that they had been using. !e new efficiency resulted in a three-fold increase in their harvests. For the first time they had enough left over to sell in the market. In a single year some of them were able to move from survival to relative prosperity.

After the bike/pump project, I was ready for something else. !e Rotary Club of Calcutta learned about me through my Assist International connection and invited me to visit Mercy Hospital. It was an easy request on their part because my visit wouldn’t cost them anything. I have never received a nickel’s reimbursement for fare, lodging, or food on any trip I’ve taken on behalf of Rotary.

In April 2016 I landed at West Bengal’s Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport, which is about 12 miles from the hospital. I had been in New Delhi and other popular tourist areas in the country, but my previous visits hadn’t prepared me for Calcutta (spelled “Kolkata” on international maps), which is one of the most impoverished places on earth; slums occupy 85 percent of the area. As we were driving to the hospital we passed an intersection where a number of people had recently been crushed beneath an overpass that had collapsed because of poor design and construction. 

When I entered the hospital, the facility wasn’t very impressive at first because the night before my arrival an electrical fire had done a lot of damage to the lobby. My guides led me to the seventh floor, where the critical care, neonatal care, and surgical units were located. !e hospital had four operating theaters. However, due to equipment breaking down or wearing out, two of the them were no longer operational and were being used as storage rooms. I put a medical gown over my suit, entered a surgical theater, and witnessed an operation in progress. My next stop was the hospital’s 16-bed critical care and the neonatal units. In both places, unscreened windows were open to the sky and fans were circulating the heat. The nursing staff had access to patient monitors, however most of the units were broken down or barely functioning.

In spite of working under such conditions, Mercy Hospital was an institution worthy of respect and admiration. It was begun in 1977 by two Canadian doctors. !e hospital now extends medical services to 16 out-lying clinics that treat patients remotely or, when necessary, move them to the main facility. Since the beginning, Mercy Hospital has remained faithful to a mandate and mission, which is to never turn away a patient, ever! As a result, 40,000 patients, which is nearly half of the 100,000 patients seen annually, pay nothing for their medical services. 

Operating capital comes through fundraising efforts by several charitable organizations. The hospital’s business model, as a charitable organization with no profits or government assistance, has kept them operating at a bare-bones level resulting in their attempting to offer medical services in the absence of reliable up-to-date medical equipment. Clearly, the hospital was worthy of whatever assistance we could provide, so I set out to get to work. 

Any international project, such as Mercy Hospital, requires a club that is local to the region where the project will be carried out to serve as the host-sponsor, which helps ensure that services provided by the distant foreign organization will be appropriate to the actual needs and desires of the target population. It was an honor to partner with the Rotary Club of Calcutta, which observed its centennial three months ago because it was chartered September 26, 1919 and is the oldest continuously operating club in Asia.

I secured a formal agreement from my Brentwood Club that it would manage the project and the Calcutta Rotary Club that it would serve as the in-country sponsor. One of their members, Vijay Bandari, in particular, provided the vision that guided our efforts. When I met with him, I was impressed with his thoughtful manner of thinking and speaking. When I asked him, “What do you want?” Vijay’s response reminded me of Yoda. He put his hands together, looked up at the ceiling, and said in a deliberate and measured tone of voice, “I want Mercy Hospital to have medical equipment that is equal in quality to the best hospitals in Calcutta.” !e pronouncement set an appropriate standard for the project. If we were going to help with the hospital, at all, we might as well do it right by bringing its medical equipment up to levels of the best Calcutta medical centers.

Fortunately, the doctors and nurses at Mercy were thoroughly trained in the appropriate use of their inoperative or missing tools and equipment because the professional training they had received from medical schools and teaching hospitals in India was as good as they could have received any place in the world. Everyone reading these words has doubtless been treated by doctors and nurses who were immigrants from India. Doctors and nurses at Mercy Hospital knew exactly what tools and equipment they needed.

I met with the head doctors from the surgical, critical care, and neonatal units and we assembled a complete wish list of what they needed and wanted. At that point, the project was becoming larger than anything I had imagined when I got off the plane. In fact, it grew into one of the largest projects approved by Rotary International that year and was given a Level 2 Global Grant status, which required more extensive reviews than for the typical international grants. During the next year-and-a-half I pushed the proposal through multiple approval levels, both at the district and national level, which became one of the most difficult parts of the process.

I served as the project evangelist, eventually enlisting buy-in and support from seven other clubs located in four different districts. I used email to secure the cooperation of the Smokey Hill Rotary Club, in Aurora, Colorado and made personal appeals to the Paradise, Cordelia, San Ramon Valley, Pittsburg, Delta Antioch, Antioch, and of course my own Brentwood Club. Once we were through the approvals process, we met with authorized equipment suppliers in India including General Electric, Draeger, and Schuler, which are the country’s gold standard suppliers. We met with reps from all three companies, secured competitive bidding for general equipment, and chose the best companies for specific items. #e final dollar amount was $271,443, which was considerably less than if we were to purchase the items from vendors in the United States. We secured the funding through matching districts grants and the Rotary Foundation, plus contributions from eight clubs in the United States.

The challenge of actually setting the equipment up onsite in the Mercy facility was formidable. We were given only four days to complete the project. To make a bad situation worse, we were “changing the tires while the car was moving down the road” because the hospital remained in full operation throughout the process. We worked 24 hours a day.

We could never have pulled it off except for the near-miraculous-level planning and implementation directed by Assist International. The success of the project was so important for them that four top people from Assist — actual principals from the company — came to direct the project. They were experienced highly-trained professionals and “doing what they were good at.” The four of them orchestrated every aspect of the process. #ey were joined by manufacturer reps, maintenance people, and volunteers from the hospital staff. We began by removing outdated equipment and installing the cabling and structured wiring system that would permit the equipment to actually operate once it was in place. We were drilling holes in walls to mount monitors.

I still can’t imagine how we did it, but on the afternoon of the fifth day, May 31, 2018, seventy of us gathered for an elaborate dedication ceremony. Several dignitarie  made speeches. One of them unveiled two immense granite plaques, each inscribed with the project name and date, plus details including the Rotary Clubs and key people who had been involved. The plaques were subsequently set up in the surgical unit and critical care unit.

To make things clear, my only role in the Mercy Project was to serve as an agent for the project, and as a representative of the Rotary Club of Brentwood, California. My three tasks included identifying what needed to be done, enlisting people who could help do it, and securing the funding. #e final project success resulted from the dedicated efforts of a large number of people — fellow Rotarians and especially those amazing folks at Assist International. Partially as a result of the project our Rotary Club of Brentwood was honored as the 2019 Best Club in our Rotary District 5160.

A year later I’m still in touch with the Mercy Hospital administrators. The project was transformative by providing the right equipment to give medical care at levels that the patients deserved. It was a gratifying personal experience for me.

We aren’t done yet! My club is currently working on a water and sanitation project for the city of San Luis Rio Colorado, Mexico, which is close enough so that some members of the club will be able to go and participate directly in the project.

Next February a group of us will spend four days building a casita for a family in the same town. A casita is a no-frills one-room dwelling that is far better than the cardboard boxes and pallet-constructed dwellings they currently live in.

Our Rotary Club is living up to the ‘Service Above Self’ Rotary tagline. The fact is, we serve ourselves best when we are serving others.

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