“STOPPING FOR THE ONE: MY JOURNEY IN INDIA” PART TWO

Vicki Davison, Partnership Advisor, reflects on her recent visit to India.

About half way through the trip, we spent a morning at Salur Hospital, the only hospital in Andhra Pradesh State that provides specialist treatment for leprosy-affected people. As we arrived, we were greeted by the hospital superintendent who showed us round several wards and explained the services offered at the hospital. Salur treats approximately 25,000 patients a year; the treatment provided for general patients subsidises the cost of care for leprosy-affected people. Specialist reconstructive surgery, eye care, ulcer care and diagnostic tests are all available for leprosy patients.

We visited a few of the wards, stopping to pray with patients and listen to their stories. Having spent some time in the men’s ulcer care ward, we were told there was one patient who we had to meet; the staff led us along the corridor into the women’s ward and she was immediately obvious. A young woman of only 20-years-old, Sadhika sat cross-legged on her hospital bed. She was quick to greet me as I sat by her, but her beautiful smile did little to mask the large discoloured patches on her cheeks and deep sadness in her eyes.

Sadhika grew up in Andhra Pradesh with her parents and two older sisters, both of whom are married. From a poor family, she has never been to school and is illiterate. A few years ago, Sadhika developed discoloured patches on her face and arms. Then, when playing with her friends, she caught her foot against a rock. Although it was badly damaged, she didn’t feel a thing. Her family began to panic – they knew something was wrong but couldn’t understand what was happening to their daughter. They took her to Vizianagaram where she was diagnosed with leprosy.

Although her family remained supportive, Sadhika became consumed with guilt and self-hatred. She spent every day terrified that someone would find out she had leprosy. She knew that discrimination because of this disease could be extreme – that she could be abandoned by her community and forced to leave her family. What would she do without them? Unable to read or write, and living under the stigma of leprosy, how would she earn money to eat? Would she have to beg, or worse? And what would happen to her sisters if their in-laws found out? Ashamed to be associated with a family tainted by leprosy, would their husbands leave? Would she ever be anything but a burden to her family? What good was a life ruined by leprosy?

Over time, Sadhika lost all sense of self-worth and became suicidal. The burden of suffering with leprosy overshadowed everything else in her life – her hopes and dreams, even her love for her family. Sadhika struggled on until one day she could bear it no longer. She planned to walk to the local train line and throw herself onto the tracks.

Thankfully something stopped her.

And it wasn’t long before Sadhika was referred to Salur Hospital for specialist treatment and counselling. When I met her, Sadhika had undergone reconstructive surgery on both of her hands to correct the deformities caused by leprosy. Her right foot was carefully bandaged up to cover the ulcer that had formed from an infected cut – a consequence of nerve damage. Although Sadhika has lost all feeling in her feet and will have to practice self-care for the rest of her life, her hands are regaining strength with regular physiotherapy exercises.

More importantly, she has found healing through counselling at the hospital and is starting to dream again.

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Sadhika at Salur Hospital, India

Sadhika’s whole face lit up as she told me how she plans to learn tailoring at our Vocational Training Centre in Vizianagaram. Clothed in a vibrant pink shalwar kameez, I could imagine her sitting behind a sewing machine, chatting and laughing with the other girls, and I couldn’t wait for her training to start.

Sadhika will stay at Salur while her ulcers heal and her hands become stronger. Then she will go to live at the Vocational Training Centre, where she will learn to read and write, and take English and computer lessons.

It was a real privilege to meet Sadhika and hear how she is overcoming the stigma, shame and physical effects of leprosy.

And I’m so excited to see her take her next step and learn tailoring at the training centre – what a transformation that will be!

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Stopping for the one: my journey in India

Vicki Davison, Partnership Advisor, reflects on her recent visit to India.

My first time in India

“I never knew that a job could give me family around the world. I’ve been working at The Leprosy Mission for nearly two years now and, with my family here, I’ve laughed, cried, learned, and been both humbled and deeply moved. These people are the reason I get out of bed at 7.30 every morning when my alarm goes off…well, if I’m being honest, it’s more like 8am – I’m not a morning person! But it’s my brothers and sisters who are affected by leprosy, and our wonderful team overseas, who challenge, motivate, and inspire me to do what I do every day.

I recently had the privilege of meeting a few members of our worldwide family in person, during my first trip to India. Along with ten of our supporters from the UK, I had an incredible week visiting our projects in Andhra Pradesh. I wanted to share some of my experience with you…

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I’m still processing everything I heard, saw and experienced, but not for the reasons I expected. I’d been told about the vibrant aroma of spice stalls in the market, the vivid blend of colours as women dressed in sarees pass by, and the cacophony of engines revving and horns beeping as motorbikes, tuk-tuks, cars and lorries veer across the road, all vying for space across several lanes of unordered traffic.

I will probably never forget the scenic landscapes of lush rice paddies and tea plantations interspersed with small village communities.

But the images that are truly burned into my mind are the faces of the people I met; it is them and their stories that will have a lasting impact on me.

Rainbow Children’s Home

Our first visit was to Rainbow Children’s Home in Vizianagaram. Many children living in this area are orphaned or abandoned because of leprosy or HIV and have nowhere to go but the railways; they shelter in the stations and scavenge on the tracks. Staying in a station may sound safe, but the conditions there are unimaginable. Human faeces litter the floor and rats infest the platforms. Noise is constant as announcements blare and trains speed past, their carriages banging and clattering. Night time is the worst. As darkness sets in, the children are left vulnerable and unprotected as they try to sleep.

No child should be left in such danger, but for these children there is simply no other choice.

Brighter Future, one of The Leprosy Mission’s partners, responded to the needs of these children by setting up the Rainbow Children’s Home in 2004. There, the team care for 80 children, around 50 of whom are leprosy-affected.

I’d heard stories about the home and seen countless pictures of the children, but nothing compared to being there in person. Although some were shy at first, it wasn’t long before I was surrounded by little ones grasping for my hands, and older girls, still in their uniforms, introducing themselves and telling me about their day at St Ann’s school.

We sat together in their new dining area – a beautifully clean, tiled room – and listened to stories from some of the older children. Many explained how they had first come to the home more than ten years ago and were now studying at college, hoping to one day become teachers, nurses and engineers. As I glanced from the wide-eyed, curious faces of the little ones – some no more than five-years-old – to the young people standing confidently in front of us, it was impossible not to feel inspired.

I was surrounded by so many little lives that had once been written-off and cast aside, but were now filled with hope and potential because of the commitment of the team here, and the incredible generosity of supporters like you.

One boy who stood out to me was six-year-old Raju. Last year, our team found him and his older brother Prashant starving and alone on the streets, abandoned by their family.

A few years ago, their dad was diagnosed with leprosy. When Raju’s mother found out, she deserted her family; none of them have seen her since.

Despite struggling with a disabled foot caused by leprosy, Raju’s father worked as a labourer in the local fields to try and provide for his sons. Tragically, in his sadness he became an alcoholic, spending anything he earned on alcohol and sleeping wherever he fell. Raju and Prashant were left to fend for themselves, wandering naked in the streets and begging for food.

Thankfully, one of our team found them and brought them to the home.

My heart felt heavy listening to Raju’s story. I couldn’t imagine the confusion and heartbreak these two young boys must have felt as their mother disappeared and they watched their father become consumed by alcohol. I could hardly bear to think about their fear as they wandered the streets desperately searching for food, and slept unprotected in the darkness.

Little Raju’s beautiful smile hides a story filled with suffering that no child should ever face, but when we met I saw a sparkle in his eyes. He played confidently with the other kids at the home, and he is regularly attending school with his brother Prashant; they have become inseparable.

Raju told us how he loves school and dreams of one day becoming a pilot.

Thanks to support from people like you, Raju’s next big challenge is not to search for food or try to survive a night on the streets; it is to learn to ride a bike!”

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Raju (left) with his brother Prashant

Let’s finish what Jesus started

Today’s reflection is from Gareth Shrubsole, Senior Programme Manager at The Leprosy Mission England & Wales.

“Let’s finish what Jesus started”

This has become a big motivation for my work at The Leprosy Mission. After centuries of fighting this cruel and highly stigmatising disease it’s exciting to see that we could soon have the means to defeat it completely. That means a lot to me, that idea of progress, of doing what we can to make life better for other people, especially those who are so often ignored, rejected or even abused simply because they got an illness.

The Leprosy Mission is like a family.

We’re all quite different from each other, and some of us are even a bit strange! – But we have a common purpose and that gives us great love and friendship with all others who share that purpose, wherever in the world we find them.

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Gareth Shrubsole with colleagues from Chanchaga Orthopaedic Workshop, Nigeria.

I do a lot of travelling in this job which is both exciting and tiring, usually to India and Nigeria. What I love is the opportunity this gives to build relationships with our global partners. After a while some of the places can start to look the same, and then it’s the people who stand out, especially when you start to see how your work is making an impact.

When you see someone lying on a hospital bed in abject suffering and then you see them again 6 months or a year later, sometimes still in the same hospital and other times back in their community; but either way looking healthier and sounding more confident, that’s really rewarding. Especially when you see the real miracles like people regaining the use of their hands after reconstructive surgery or whose sight is restored by cataract surgery.

When you meet an old woman who says she used to beg to survive, but now she’s running her own shop and has spoken out on a public stage – both to demand her rights and to encourage others like her not to succumb to the silence, stigma and shame.

When these things happen that’s when we see God’s hand in the work we do.

When Jesus walked the earth he healed people with leprosy, encouraged the broken-hearted and welcomed in the outcast, sometimes all in the course of a single day. For us mortals it’s harder and can take much longer, but that makes it all the more rewarding when you get to see such transformations happening.

We have a lot of fun in our office, there’s a lot of laughter and often cake, but – like any other office – our day to day work involves spreadsheets, reports, budgets, meetings and many hours staring at a screen. These things can easily get you down, and the commute home in heavy traffic after a long day at the office is as tedious in this job as it would be in any other.

The big difference is that it really is all worth it.

Not only do we get to work with and for so many inspiring and wonderful people, but when we do get to sleep at night we can do it with the satisfaction that we’re making a difference. That’s the real X-factor!