The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Midwife to quack to BC Roy

Bhangor (South 24-Parganas)/Calcutta, Sept. 6: Rehana Bibi gave birth to a son “about four weeks ago” at Bhagabanpur. It was her mother, Khudejaan Bibi, who brought the child out with an unsterilised knife. The knife served another purpose that evening; it was also used to shave off the little hair on the child’s head immediately after it had severed the umbilical cord.

Her in-laws at neighbouring Gabtala got the cheerful news a few hours later. The news brought so much cheer that the family spent more than Rs 2,000 buying clothes for the new entrant and in celebrations.

When Ashraful was born, he weighed “about 3.5 kg”. When he was admitted to B.C. Roy Memorial Hospital for Children — after 10 days of ignorant bliss and then of “cheap” treatment from his grandfather (the local quack) — with infection at the places the unsterilised knife had been used, he weighed 2.2 kg.

Rehana’s tale is repeated almost everyday at villages like Gabtala, about 20 km from Calcutta, where the health network is still primitive.

Retracing Rehana’s steps from Bhagabanpur to B.C. Roy Hospital in Calcutta and speaking to her, her husband and her father-in-law, The Telegraph tried to piece together the circumstances that force people like her to land up at B.C. Roy.

Rehana’s family was not aware of what they had done to her son till her father-in-law, Abdus Samad, visited them five days later. Samad said he recognised what had happened to Ashraful “immediately” after he saw the five-day-old baby.

Told that the baby was fast losing weight and suffering from repeated convulsions, Samad first tried his brand of treatment.

A mala was arranged for, some mantras were chanted and jharan (driving away the evil spirit) was attempted. Five days later, the baby had grown thinner and weaker.

It was then that Samad found his confidence in his treatment wavering. “I rushed to the nearby Jirangachha Primary Health Centre where nurses advised me to go to B.C. Roy Hospital,” Samad said.

The family — left poorer by the celebrations it could not afford — still hired a cab and rushed Ashraful to the hospital where he was admitted on August 19.

Yesterday, Rehana said it was no use blaming the family for its “callousness”. “We just try to go for the cheaper alternative first,” she added.

Her father-in-law now pedals to the hospital everyday. It takes three hours one way, but there is no other way. “We don’t have the money to travel by bus everyday,” he said, after spending a few thousand — by selling two of the four milch cows — on his grandson’s treatment.

“We paid Rs 1,300 for a brain scan at the Medical College and Hospital — B.C. Roy does not have such a facility — as well as at least Rs 2,000 more on medicines and the cab fare the first day,” he said. Today, their menu consists of snails — there was a bucket teeming with those creatures kept ready for dinner — and “some other things, besides rice”, the 55-year-old grandfather said apologetically.

A visit to the Jirangachha Primary Health Centre revealed why B.C. Roy gets so many referred cases. It has two doctors to treat the 500-plus patients who turn up at the outpatients’ department on some days. Today, there was only one (Dr Sikdar). “Divide the number of patients by the number of minutes the doctors get and you have the average time spent on a patient,” a hospital official said. It comes to less than a minute.

The centre has only three types of diagnostic equipment; one of them is a microscope, the other two are kits to measure haemoglobin-count and blood pressure. “Given the patients we get, we urgently need kits to ascertain a patient’s urea-content, sugar-level, bilirubin-count and a colonometer,” an official said.

“I’m sorry I’ve forgotten to mention blood-grouping kits,” he added, admitting that they did not have the wherewithal to ascertain even a person’s blood group.

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