I still cannot forget the little, frail, anaemic, tired figure of him sitting on the floor next to his mother. That was two years ago. One could clearly see a kind of tragic helplessness in his eyes. The vegetables inside his mother, Indrani's basket were green and fresh but the boy who sat next to the vegetables looked pale and miserable. He didn't even have the strength to sit straight then; he slouched and leaned on to the wall for support.
Even a few steps made him breathless and exhausted as the good and the bad blood in his heart got mixed through a hole in the heart wall. To correct the problem, he needed an open-heart surgery. Alas! The poorest of the poor too has to shell out some money for such a big surgery, even in a government hospital.
Indrani took the feeble and the sickly boy along with her even though Vetrivel could not withstand the 15-km bus journey. How could an ailing boy walk when he found it difficult to even sit? But poor little kids have to bear all these miseries and discomforts. His mother felt that unless people saw the fatigued little boy, they would not become compassionate and offer any help to him. Perhaps her fear was genuine too. By the time Indrani's basket got empty, Vetrivel would be lying on the cement floor, drained of all energy. It was a very, very pathetic sight.
Some of those who were regularly buying vegetables from Indrani contributed some money for Vetrivel's operation so that he would walk again, run again and play again like all other 11-year-olds.
Two months passed but there was no sight of Indrani, and all of us assumed that the operation had taken place. It was not to be. One day, she was back with her basket full of vegetables once again. That day, when she shouted, Amma, kaai (Amma, vegetables), it was not very loud or audible; even a stranger could sense the melancholy and despair that was there in her voice. When some of us went down to enquire about Vetrivel, we saw her sitting there with a vacant expression in her eyes. The moment she saw us, tears started flowing endlessly.
Yes, Vetrivel was in the government hospital for nearly two months but he was not operated upon. Almost everyday the hospital authorities assured Indrani that the operation would soon take place. But after two months, when the concerned doctor got transferred from there, Vetrivel was referred to another children's hospital.
By then all the money that she had been exhausted. Yet, she took him to the hospital. A heartless heart surgeon told them and that too, in front of the child, that the operation was very risky and the chances of the child surviving were very meek. The doctor's 'kind' words terrified the little boy so much that he refused to get admitted in the hospital. The frightened boy told his mother that he would die somewhere else. Indrani was desperately alone in the world with no one to support, pacify or help her.
But life has to go on; she has to work to survive, her sick son has to eat to survive at least as long as he is alive. So, she was back with her vegetable basket.
"Will you please help my son live? I don't want him to die now," she pleaded.
We felt helpless but definitely angry and frustrated. The very thought of an 11-year-old dying for want of proper medical help when there were plenty of high tech hospitals and highly qualified doctors in the city was unbearable.
A letter to the chief minister's office requesting for help came back with a list of hospitals in the city to be contacted and they also promised Rs 5000 for the operation from the chief minister's relief fund.
The government railway hospital was near Indrani's house. So, we decided to contact the hospital first. No, they would not give any concession to anyone in the medical charge. 'It is Rs 95,000. Take it or leave it. It is like a railway ticket. Nothing more, nothing less,' the doctor said unsympathetically.
'When I cannot make 95 rupees, how do they expect me to make Rs. 95,000?' Indrani cried again.
It was then that I got a chance to interview Dr K M Cherian of the Madras Medical Mission, a hospital specialized in cardiac diseases, for The Sunday Observer. (The esteemed editor of Rediff was the editor of The Sunday Observer then.) After the interview, I showed the medical papers of the boy to Dr Cherian and asked him whether he could help. Without even batting an eyelid, he agreed to perform the surgery free. Free! I felt like jumping from my seat. But we had to pay for the medicines, he said and it would come to about Rs 65,000. The Madras Medical Mission charged Rs 1,25,000 for an open heart surgery then.
From that day onwards, all the ladies in my neighborhood decided to go out and aggressively beg for money. They went to the nearby schools with the photostat copies of Vetrivel's medical papers, they went to some corporate houses and they even tried to contact the Rotary clubs. The impediments cited by the corporate houses were many and the Rotarians also had to meet to take a decision! But the Principal of the nearby St John's school was extremely helpful and one word from him in the assembly and all the students voluntarily contributed one rupee each and some even more. They even prayed for an unknown boy who was fighting to live.
One more interview happened and it was with Vaiko of the MDMK and although I Didn't have much faith in any of the politicians, I asked Vaiko whether he would help a poor boy. Yes, he too agreed. As a member of Parliament, he could collect Rs 20,000 from the Prime Minister's relief fund. And, the MDMK office pursued the matter in such a way that the cheque reached the hospital by the time Vetrivel was admitted.
We gave a small appeal in our neighborhood newspaper. (Here, I must tell you, not a single big newspaper came forward to help the boy.) Unfortunately, the appeal was not very effective. We got just Rs 3600. But some of the letters to Vetrivel were so touching that it made all of us very emotional. A little girl sent ten rupees in a cover with a small note, 'Dear Vetrivel, I do not know you. But I wish you well. I have only ten rupees with me. Please get well fast.'
Everyday by ten in the morning, all the ladies were out on the street, going from house to house, school to school asking for money. And in the evening, all of us would sit down and calculate the collection and yes, we went back home disappointed.
Months passed by and we were getting desperate. What if we could not raise the money? We had given hope to Vetrivel and Indrani. And we had decided earlier itself that Vetrivel would not die for want of money. But how would we meet Dr Cherian when we had not collected the money? Time was running out for the boy.
All of us became so frantic that we used to tell everyone about Vetrivel. We did not want to rule out any help that came from any unknown person. But money just trickled in. I narrated our unsuccessful efforts to a friend of mine, Manju, not expecting any miracle, as she was only a student at IIT, Madras. But Manju did surprise us and that was a big surprise.
After a week, Manju called and said, 'Yes, we have collected some money from the students and some faculty members. We have split the money into two parts. We have drawn one cheque is in favour of the hospital and the other in the mother's name. She would need a lot of money once the child comes back home. Please come and collect it.' We rushed to IIT.
"Can you guess how much we have collected?" she asked. May be a few thousands, I told her. But it was a whopping Rs 25,000! We just couldn't believe our luck, or rather, Vetrivel's. Now, we could take the boy to the hospital immediately and confidently.
In no time, Vetrivel was admitted in the hospital. But our struggle did not end there. He needed eight bottles of blood and that included two bottles of fresh blood too. Vetrivel's blood group, AB negative, was a very rare blood group thus making the task all the more difficult. From where were we going to get eight bottles of blood, we were worried again. It was a gentleman in our locality who took the responsibility of arranging the blood. If you have seen Mani Ratnam's Roja, you may know him; S V Venkatraman. He was Arvind Swamy's boss in the film.
The day Vetrivel's heart was to be opened, the students of St.John's school prayed for him again.
I still cannot forget the smiling face of Vetrivel sitting on the bed and thanking us with folded hands. Tears welled up in our eyes, out of happiness and out of relief that a saga, which went on for nearly a year, ended successfully. That one year taught us a lot of lessons; made us grow, made us look at life differently. We expected the doctors working in government hospitals to be kind, but it was a doctor from a private hospital who shouldered the responsibility. We expected the Rotary clubs and corporate houses to come forward voluntarily to help the boy but it was a politician and thousands of unknown faceless, nameless students who really helped Vetrivel live again.
Today Vetrivel is tall, smiling and healthy because of the efforts of so many human beings, from Vaiko to Dr Cherian to Venkataraman to the students of IIT and St John's school. When one thinks of these warm and kind-hearted people, one gets a feeling that the world is, after all a wonderful place to live in. All these known and unknown people give us hope and reaffirm our faith in humanity.
Shobha Warrier looks at Madras with a keen eye
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