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Everyday heroes spread sunshine outside Tata Memorial Hospital

Jan 22, 2024 04:43 PM IST

Every day, approximately 3,500 patients visit the Mumbai OPD, among them outstation patients who sometimes have to live in this inordinately expensive city

MUMBAI: In the bustling surroundings of Tata Memorial Hospital, Parel, a heartwarming scene unfolds every morning at 8.15. As patients and their relatives patiently wait in serpentine queues for test reports and access to the outpatient departments (OPDs) at the hospital’s annexe gate, a parallel queue forms on the opposite side of the road for a free plate of poha or upma with masala chai.

Everyday heroes spread sunshine outside Tata Memorial Hospital PREMIUM
Everyday heroes spread sunshine outside Tata Memorial Hospital

Yash Shah (32), a businessman who lost his mother to breast cancer in December 2022, commenced his altruistic mission eight months ago. Having witnessed the ordeal of cancer patients during his visits to the hospital, Shah took it upon himself to provide a nourishing breakfast to needy patients and their families from various parts of Maharashtra and India. Working alongside his cook from 5.30 am, he prepares 50 kg of upma or poha for at least 400 beneficiaries.

“My family decided to offer breakfast because there was hardly anyone distributing food in the morning,” said the Wadala resident, who spends 6,000 per day on the food and disposable crockery. “While the doctors and staff are doing their best to provide world-class treatment, our aim is to donate the day’s first healthy meal, which otherwise many miss out on.”

Tata Memorial Hospital, the oldest cancer hospital in the country and mother hospital of the pan-India Tata Memorial Centres, records 70,000 new cancer patients annually. Every day, approximately 3,500 patients visit the Mumbai OPD, among them outstation patients who sometimes have to live in this inordinately expensive city for months and struggle with finding affordable accommodation, food and livelihood. It is here that everyday heroes like Shah are a godsend.

Some benefactors barely have enough for themselves but are angels of altruism. Forty-four-year-old Bulbul Ray, who sells blankets and sweaters on a Parel footpath, started helping cancer patients in 2006 when she moved to Mumbai from Kolkata. Along with her husband Ratan, she helps patients find affordable accommodation and provides 60 kg of khichdi daily though a sponsor at around 3.30 pm when most patients are done with OPD visits. The couple also helps out patients struggling to buy medicine, spending half of their monthly income of 20,000 on this.

Ray began her social work by being a translator for the many patients from West Bengal who spoke only Bengali. “One day, I overheard a person at my pavement shop talking of their problems in communicating with doctors,” she said. “That’s when I realised that I had been given an opportunity to serve them. I don’t hesitate to help even if the hospital calls at midnight.” Ray lost her father to cancer when she was a child. “By helping patients in whatever way I can, I feel I am helping my father,” she said.

Like Ray, Shakeel and Salim Khan from Kurla distribute lunch once a week, help patients find accommodation and connect with trusts/NGOs to fund treatment. The brothers lost their mother to lymphoma cancer in 2022 after a four-year battle. “We know how the system works and feel good if we can help even one patient,” said Shakeel. The doctors are doing their best but it’s overwhelming to see the number of patients seeking treatment and their day-to-day struggles. Most are out-of-Mumbai residents and feel lost.”

Dadar resident and oral cancer survivor Fulchand Chavan (57) distributes food once a week in the afternoon. Diagnosed with cancer five years ago followed by a relapse, Chavan knows the struggle of cancer patients and their relatives, including those who are forced to live on the footpath. “Like me, many provide hygienic food. In the winter, I distribute blankets,” he said.

A grave stumbling block in the path of the altruists is the hotel proprietors and hawkers in the vicinity who do not allow them to distribute food outside the hospital. “Initially no one said anything,” said Shah. “But when I started coming every morning, the hawkers and hotel owners started harassing me. They called the police, who questioned me. I am forced to distribute food far away from the hospital, which defeats the purpose.”

Agreeing with Shah, Titu George, who has been regularly distributing lunch, said that a dedicated place closer to the hospital or cooperation from the police would help. “Those who serve food are a huge threat to the business of local hawkers and hoteliers and therefore face hurdles,” he said. “We need support from the police and local administration for this noble work to continue.”

Dr Sudeep Gupta, director of Tata Memorial Centres (TMC), said that new cancer centres had been started across India to reduce the patient load at the Parel hospital but TMH still records close to 60,000 new patients every year. “Once the new platinum jubilee building, which is spread across 11 lakh square feet on the Haffkine premises in Parel is commissioned in the next four years, we are expecting the patient load to ease off, as 520 beds will be added,” he said. “We are also encouraging out-of- Mumbai patients who come to our Parel centre to get treated at ACTREC, Navi Mumbai where there is a stay facility. At present, the centre has 500 beds, which will go up to 880 by the end of next year.”

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‘Grateful for the food and help’

Motilal Mahato (29), a driver from Dhanbad, has been staying with his mother on a footpath outside the hospital for the last eight months. Diagnosed with liver cancer eight months ago, Mahato’s mother has undergone eight chemotherapy cycles. “I have no idea how long the treatment will continue,” said Mahato. “It’s a huge struggle without money; there are days when even the local administration drives us away from the footpath. In such a bleak scenario, people distributing food, blankets and clothes give us some relief. If we miss out on the free food, we have to spend 200 to 500 a day.”

Arvind Singh (50), a daily wage labourer from a village in Madhya Pradesh, has been coming to the city with his wife Kamlarani (45) and his daughter for the last two years after his wife was detected with thyroid cancer. “We stay on the footpath,” he said. “Initially, we used to carry a stove and utensils to cook. But people who distribute food regularly are a godsend. The day we miss out on breakfast/lunch or dinner, we end up paying 500 per day for food alone.”

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