The collective punch to get Dingko to Delhi for treatment
FIGHTING BACK: 1998 Asian Games boxing champion under supervision after liver cancer relapseUpdated: Apr 30, 2020 08:20 IST
Sitting in their home on the outskirts of Imphal, Ngangom Babai Devi despaired about her husband—the fiery boxer turned coach Dingko Singh.
On March 2, Dingko had been released from the Institute of Liver and Biliary Sciences (ILBS) in New Delhi after five weeks of treatment for a suspected relapse of cancer of the liver, with the understanding that he would return for follow-up treatment two weeks later.
On March 25, the Covid-19 pandemic brought upon a countrywide lockdown and the closure of air travel for three weeks. On April 14, the lockdown was extended by another three weeks; Dingko was trapped at home, with no way to get treatment. He was running a high fever and was growing weaker.
It was not just his deteriorating physical condition, but his mental health that his wife was worried about.
“Depression was setting in. Earlier he would always talk about beating the disease, even after the suspected relapse,” Babai said. “For the first time in so many years he was feeling mentally defeated. We were scared, there was no way to come to Delhi for treatment.”
Word reached the Boxing Federation of India (BFI) on April 20. The federation’s president, Ajay Singh, who is also the chairman of the domestic airline SpiceJet, immediately offered help.
On April 25, Dingko, 41 and Babai, 39, were flown from Imphal to Delhi aboard a SpiceJet air ambulance.
“He is a national hero,” Singh said. “The lockdown meant he could not have travelled to Delhi to resume his radiation therapy. It was important to do whatever it takes to bring the champion boxer here.”
On April 28, Dingko’s treatment begun at ILBS. By the evening, the boxing federation had released a short video of the former boxer.
“After coming to Delhi I am feeling much better,” Dingko said. “The treatment has started. It has given me lot of strength to face this challenge.”
Flying in these extraordinary circumstances, with the country under lockdown, and air travel closed, took a series of extraordinary steps. It needed explanatory letters from doctors at ILBS as to why the treatment was necessary. It needed clearances at the state level, from the aviation ministry and help from the sports ministry.
It needed both Dingko and Babai to undergo tests for Covid-19—they got their results (negative) a day before they took the flight. A No Objection Certificate to fly was obtained from the district administration at Imphal, with Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh himself taking an interest in the matter and arranging for Dingko’s security and travel—from his village Sekta, 25km from Imphal airport—on the day of the flight.
“Everything was closed because of the pandemic so we were safely escorted by the security, otherwise we could have faced problems on our way,” said Babai Devi. “The biggest challenge was to decide on travel, whether to take the risk in these times.”
At the airport, Dingko and his wife were again scanned by doctors before they boarded the flight at 12:30 in the afternoon. A doctor and a paramedic also flew with them.
“Imphal is a ‘critical airfield’ because of its (high) altitude,” said Arun Kashyap, head of engineering and allied business, SpiceJet. “So, two pilots adept or familiar with such terrain were chosen, though I cannot disclose their names.”
After a single stop at Patna at 3pm to refuel, the Super King Air B200—a small, twin-propeller aircraft—landed in Delhi at six in the evening. The couple were driven straight to ILBS in an ambulance.
“We are taking precautions in the hospital, so I have asked our friends who stay in Delhi not to visit us,” Babai Devi said. “It’s not good for them also to visit a hospital.”
Dingko’s lasting legacy is built on one spectacular moment of success—he won the Asian Games gold in bantamweight in 1998, India’s first boxing medal at the Games in 16 years. It made him a legend. He was the “bad boy” of Indian boxing back then. Dropped from the original Asian Games team without explanation, Dingko had gone on an infamous drinking binge that resulted in a public fallout, but he was also put back on the team.
“During his boxing days Dingko was stubborn and adamant, but he was an emotional person too,” recalls then national coach Gurbax Singh Sandhu. “It was tough to control Dingko in camps because of his nature.”
That Asiad gold inspired another fiery boxer to take up the sport—the six-time world champion and Olympic medallist Mary Kom.
In his time of need, many of the boxers he inspired have come together to help him.
Beijing Olympics bronze medalist Vijender Singh and Olympian and Commonwealth Games medallist Manoj Kumar are raising funds for his treatment. “The entire boxing fraternity is with Dingko. He has been a star and has inspired many of us,” said Vijender.
This is different from when Dingko was first diagnosed with cancer in 2016. To fund his surgery in January 2017 and the lengthy post-surgical treatment, he had to sell his house. This time the family is overwhelmed by the prompt response. “There are so many people who are sending money to our bank account. Without this help it would have been very difficult,” said Babai.
By the end of 2017, Dingko thought he had beaten the disease. He went back to the sport, and became a tireless coach at the Khuman Lampak SAI centre in Manipur. Last November, he fell ill again.
“Earlier this year when he was admitted it was basically suspected recurrence,” said Dr. Viniyendra Pamecha, Professor and head, Department of liver transplant and hepato-pancreato biliary surgery at IBLS, and the man who operated on Dingko back in 2017.
When Dingko was admitted in January he had jaundice.
“His jaundice is still there,” Dr Pamecha said. “We have tried to bring it down...it’s is now slowly coming down. We are trying to take the opinion of the oncologist about his further treatment, whether we can start chemotherapy or not. That is where we are.”