Friday June 18, 2004: Bombay, India: I had been dealing with the disease in the places I traveled over the past couple years. In many countries, 50 to 65 percent of the population had contracted HIV/AIDS, and they were expected to die within a period of no longer than five years. I had been visiting hospitals in Malawi, Zambia, Congo, etc., where every patient occupying a bed had HIV/AIDS.
They were there dying of tuberculosis, malaria, intestinal disease or acute infection, but the cause for their never getting well was because they were infected with the AIDS virus. They would never leave that hospital alive.
Dr. Douglas Jackson and I had visited Rwanda together in December 2003.
There, we had talked to different groups of health care workers who had been contracted to deliver the antiretroviral “cocktail of medicines” to AIDS victims. The workers confirmed the high percentages of the population who were infected, but they told us that they were greatly worried because the sick people were doing nothing about changing their lifestyles or sexual habits. In simple English, that meant that even if the AIDS victims really took the medicines that were given to them and did not go out and sell them to someone who did not want to admit they had the virus, and even if those immune-enhancing meds might keep them alive for another five years longer, they still figured that they were now under no obligation to change their habits. Instead they could continue in their promiscuity, and what you accomplished with the medication was keeping them alive and sexually active so they could go and infect another 25 people in their next five years of bonus time.
There was no cure for AIDS. People were viewing the meds as an inoculation and remedy, which they simply were not. We discussed that the touting of the availability of the antiretroviral medications could actually increase the spread of the disease.
My fears regarding the AIDS epidemic were confirmed by an International Herald Tribune article that I read while in India. The reporter emphasized: “A group spearheaded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is warning that the push to expand access to AIDS treatment could actually fuel growth of HIV infections if treatment isn’t paired with efforts to prevent the spread of new infections.”
The article continued: “Access to lifesaving drugs could lead to resumption of risky sex in poor countries just as it has in rich countries of the world” and there was being recognized now “the potential for a huge backfire.”
India was one of the countries that continued to greatly bother the global health watchdogs. It appeared that India, like Africa and China, was heading for an unprecedented epidemic because the high occurrence of newly infected victims in areas of port cities, along major cargo transportation routes, as well as bus and train lines, had been ignored or hidden in earlier months and years. But the growth was taking place in those areas in exponential numbers.
The Reynolds Memorial Hospital in Washim was at least ahead of the curve with their testing facilities and blood bank.
We said our “goodbyes” at the Washim Hospital and compound and loaded into a van about 1:30 p.m. on Friday afternoon. Dr. Noah cleared his surgery calendar and insisted that he accompany me all the way back to Bombay.
Our vehicle bounced along the Indian countryside for about four hours on our way back to the airport at Arangabad. Because of the rains, the farmers were out enthusiastically working their fields. Just during the time I had been in Washim, there was a definite “turning of green” in the countryside.
Only occasionally would I ever spot a motorized tractor in the fields. All the plowing and planting and tilling were being accomplished by oxen pulling crude equipment through the fields. The farmer driving the team of two oxen would adjust the depth of the plow into the ground by riding the wooden plow and tilting the wooden tongs forward or backward as the plow went through the dirt. The more vertical the tongs, the deeper the cut made in the soil.
The soil in that region of India was dark and rich and looked as if it would grow anything planted in it. I was amazed at how high a percentage of the land was under cultivation. Maybe they weren’t quite as efficient at using every square inch as the Vietnamese rice growers would have been, but I think the farmers were every bit as dedicated to the soil.
I guessed that in India’s situation with a billion human mouths to feed, plus all the holy animals, they had better be pretty efficient with the terra firma allocated to them.
As I traveled throughout the 135 countries listed in my passports, I enjoyed observing the people. Not just their customs, but also their character. There was a certain dignity and nobility reflected in the Indian people.
They might live in a rural hut or a squalid urban ghetto, but they care about being clean and the women are always dressed in proper and colorful clothing. Even as they walked along the country roadsides you could look deeply into their Jacobean brown eyes and sense dignity and confidence.
We pulled into the parking lot of the small airport at Arangabad with a comfortable amount of time to check in and board our Jet Airways flight to Bombay. I was still trying to adjust to the fact that Dr. Noah was traveling with me all the way back to Bombay and would stay overnight at the Avion Hotel so that he could properly take care of me and officially see me off on the airplane Saturday morning. His deep concern about details and his capacity to care let me know what kind of a surgeon he was without ever putting on scrubs and watching him perform a procedure in his operating theater. It also let me know that Project C.U.R.E. had found a conscientious partner with impeccable integrity. He would take what we donated to him and multiply it 100-fold.
Our plane rattled down the runway and lifted off about 7:55 p.m. We arrived in Bombay about 10 p.m. I already knew the Avion Hotel would have a warm, clean shower and some clean sheets on the bed. What the personnel did not have were my tickets from Dr. Bidari for my next morning flight to Miraj, but his promise to “have everything well under control” had been given seriously, and later that night a man arrived at the Avion Hotel in the middle of another downpour of rain. He not only brought the tickets but also had an auto there from the Miraj Hospital to drive me back to the Wanless Hospital in the event that for some reason the morning flight would not fly. Dr. Bidari was really making up for any lost time. There was no way he was going to let me leave India and go home without seeing his hospital. It would be a 10- or 11-hour drive in that auto if my flight did not go the next morning to Kolhapur, India.
Saturday, June 19
I was up and already at the airport by 6 a.m. Saturday morning. Deccan Airways was a new carrier to me. They had been organized to fly within India just the past year. Their fleet of planes consisted of some old Folker craft with two propellers and the body hanging under a big wing.
I watched them weigh my two pieces of luggage and grin as they soaked me for excess baggage. I protested, “Just let me carry my one piece of hand luggage onto the airplane, and I won’t be over your arbitrary limit for checked luggage.” No way, the upstart fliers needed every chunk of revenue they could muster, so I had to go get some US dollars changed into rupees to pay them the excess fee.
The Deccan Airways group made up for that inconvenience by not serving any breakfast and trying to charge for even a cup of tea on the plane. You can know that I was happy that I didn’t have to fly with them further than to Kolhapur, India.
When we landed at Kolhapur, I did give thanks that I did not have to bounce around like a marble in a tin can for the 11-hour ride I would have endured if not for the puddle-jumper airline that Saturday morning.
At Kolhapur I realized that the airport had only been open for the past year, so if I had traveled last year to Miraj it surely would have been by auto.
Another of Dr. Bidari’s assistants was waiting to pick me up and whisk me off to a local restaurant for breakfast before we started on our two-hour trip from Kolhapur to Miraj.
Some 110 years before, Presbyterian missionaries from jolly England had traveled to Miraj and Dr. Sir William Wanless and his wife Mary, who were actually from Canada, decided to concentrate their efforts on building a medical dispensary, then later a hospital. They had arrived in 1891; the original cut-stone hospital was constructed in 1894.
Over the years to come, the Wanless Hospital in Miraj had grown into a large hospital containing 500 beds and offering all specialties, including open heart surgeries. It also housed a nursing college, training nearly 200 new professionals annually in a very impressive program.
Medical Benevolence Foundation (MBF) had been the Presbyterian church’s medical arm with whom Project C.U.R.E. had been working in Africa (Cameroon, Congo, Malawi, Kenya, Zambia, and Zimbabwe) for about six years. Project C.U.R.E. had partnered with the group to set up our warehouse and volunteer center in Houston, Texas. Now, they had requested that we go to India and begin helping the Wanless Hospital in Miraj.
Next Week: Dr. Bidari and the Wanless Hospital