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May 12, 2000
'Ray' of hope
When most men his age are enjoying their retirement, this septuagenarian works tirelessly to bring smiles back to the children in India. Toronto-based Dr Ajit Ray seeks peace in serving the humanity.
A retired professor of genetics at the University of Toronto, Dr Ray has taken it upon himself to help Indian children suffering from genetic malformations - more specifically those born with a cleft lip or cleft palate.
"After retirement I found I had a lot of time and decided to give back something to the world to remember me,'' says Dr Ray.
While teaching human population genetics in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Toronto, he found that genetic malformations left both physical and mental scars on the victim. "Not only is the victim physically handicapped, but also suffers rejection, humiliation and discrimination in the society and sometimes even in his/her own family," says Dr Ray.
He and some like-minded people in Toronto have now come together to form a small organization which collects funds and provides both humanitarian and medical aid to such children.
Dr Ray travels to India every year with a team of doctors - comprising plastic surgeons - to carry out corrective surgeries. The team so far has held camps in several small towns and remote villages.
While the organization, gradually gaining recognition in India and Canada, is now able to attract volunteers, the surgeries are performed free of cost in deserving cases.
Dr Ray, who is settled in Canada, says he owes the inspiration for the work he is doing to his homeland. It was Mahatma Gandhi's private secretary, late Nirmal Kumar Bose, who urged him to take up the noble cause.
Working with the natives in Orissa then, he did some research on one such tribe. Famous British scientist J B S Haldane, who later became an Indian citizen, showed interest in his work and asked him to join his team.
He moved to Holland in 1964 to get his PhD in human genetics from the University of Leiden. From there he went to the University of Toronto, where he taught human population genetics for more than 20 years. During this period he got involved in research work on genetics of cleft palate and lip.
This disorder occurs in approximately one in 500 newborns in Japan, one in 1,000 in Europe, one is 700 in America and one in 1,500 in India.
Most affected newborns die soon after birth due to feeding problems and respiratory infections. Only those belonging to the high socio-economic strata receive help.
Dr Ray's volunteers bring affected children from remote villages across India to Calcutta, where the operations are performed. The surgery lasts approximately 90 minutes and requires eight days of post-operation care and medication. Food and accommodation is provided free of cost to the children and their parents.
Dr Ray welcomes any help to his organisation - in cash or kind. He often urges fellow doctors to perform one operation every year free of cost.
Dr Ray remembers the first contribution to his organisation - a cheque of $ 500 - came from his son, a computer hardware engineer in California. This was followed by more help from family and friends.
Dr Ray hopes to perform 200 operations before letting someone else take over.
"It is not easy at my age. But with the work I am doing, I hope to get the younger lot involved. I want this work to continue...there is a lot to be done.''
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