Written by Sandhira Wijayaratne, Mabelle Arole Fellow – Film by Safiya Noor Dhanani, Intern
A thirteen year-old boy sits on the draped hospital bed of CRHP’s dressing room, watching as a technician cuts away at the cast on his left forearm. The wrist nestled within—straight and solid—looks a lot different than what it did weeks before. As a new cast is shaped around his arm, Sarthak wriggles his fingers, displaying deft movement around the rapidly drying plaster. Satisfied, he looks up at his grandfather sitting beside him, and smiles.
It’s been a month since CRHP hosted its most recent surgical camp, and the first with our partner, the Freedom From Poverty Foundation. For a week in late January, surgical teams from Canada, Italy, and Australia worked with our hospital staff to perform operations on patients suffering from a variety of disabilities—cleft palates and cleft lips, foot and hand deformities, tongue ties, burn contractures, and other ailments. Sarthak was one of 64 patients who received free care, and who continue to trickle into CRHP’s Julia Hospital for post-operative checkups.
Before the camp began, I remember when Sarthak first stepped into the exam room with his grandfather, Mr. Dhale. Casually lifting up his sleeve, the teenager held up a wrist traced with scars and at a 45-degree angle to his forearm. As the surgeons in the room started whispering to each other, Mr. Dhale explained how his grandson was caught in a car accident as a baby, breaking his left arm and wrist. Though surgery was done immediately, some damage was permanent, and Sarthak’s wrist remained partially disconnected to an arm that would continue to lengthen. The result was a hand gradually pushed inward by the bones of a boy whose growth was only starting. The doctors made their prognosis clear. Surgery was necessary to save Sarthak’s life.
When studying the biggest international health headlines of recent memory, surgery is often put on the back-burner, nicknamed “the neglected stepchild of global public health.” Though emphasis is placed on infectious disease and prevention, surgery has its fair share of global health wins—from Caesarian sections for complicated deliveries to cataract operations that give back sight. But whether due to its perceived expense or its single-patient focus, surgery continues to be overlooked as a cost-effective tool for global health change. As a friend once put it, surgery has that rare ability to change the course of a lifetime within one day, tackling harsh health landscapes with a single procedure. Over the last few weeks at CRHP, it’s been difficult to argue with that sentiment.
A mother whose infant son underwent cleft palate repair cried upon seeing him for the first time after surgery, thankful that he’ll be better able to consume food. A girl whose clubfeet were so severe that she was walking on the tops of her toes can now move much more comfortably. And for Sarthak and his realigned arm, a career involving computer work and typing now becomes an attainable reality. Mr. Dhale was so pleased with his grandson’s surgery that he sent me a thank-you text message to forward to all the doctors and staff. Given the tremendous impact that this camp has had on our communities, access to safe surgery remains a key priority for what we do at CRHP. With your help and support, we hope to continue this work next year.