WHEN two-and-a-half year old Noor Fatima returns with her parents on the Dosti (friendship) bus to Lahore after a successful heart surgery at the Narayana Hrudayalaya hospital in Bangalore, it is more than her little heart that would have been healed. The little Pakistani girl, who with her parents Nadeem Sajjad and Tayaba Nadeem traversed the newly opened road of friendship in search of world-class cardiac care, has contributed hugely to the process of healing of subcontinental wounds. For days together the nation's attention was riveted on the lovely though seriously ill child, who smiled from the front-page of every newspaper in the country. There were shared moments of anxiety in both countries as she went in for surgery. The sense of relief that followed her successful operation found expression in an unprecedented groundswell of good wishes for her and her family. Noor suffered from ventricular septal defect (VSD) with pulmonary stenosis. She was operated upon on July 14 at the Narayana Hrudayalaya by a team of paediatric surgeons led by Dr. Rajesh Sharma, a cardiac paediatric surgeon, and a leading specialist in the field.
Noor is not the first Pakistani child to be operated upon at the hospital, which gets a stream of children seeking cardiac treatment from the countries in the region, Bangladesh and Pakistan in particular. What then explains the chord that she struck in people's hearts and minds? Dr. Devi Prasad Shetty, chairman and managing director, Narayana Hrudayalaya, attributes it to the "yearning for peace, a strong subcontinental trait". This latent urge formed the foundation on which a number of initiatives towards building people-to-people contact could be quickly built. "There were other factors that made her case special," Dr Shetty added. "She arrived by the Dosti bus that heralded the reopening of ties between the two countries; she is, of course, a gorgeous little girl; she was coming to India for a heart operation; and she had the surgery done in a place far removed from Delhi!"
Noor's successful surgery opened a small but potentially productive new track in bilateral ties, namely, medical collaboration and exchange. When an anonymous donor offered to underwrite the costs of Noor's surgery, Nadeem Sajjad was initially reluctant to accept it. "I told him to accept the money and contribute it towards the hospital for treatment for other poor children, a suggestion he readily accepted," Lakshmi Mani, manager, Charitable Wing, Narayana Hrudayalaya, told Frontline. It was then that Nadeem suggested the setting up of a "Dosti Fund" to treat poor children form Pakistan and India. He made a personal contribution of Rs.50,000 to the fund, and also contributed Rs.10,000 that was given to him for his daughter's treatment from the Karnataka Chief Minister's fund. With several others donating, the collection has now gone up to over Rs.2 lakhs. "The Action Group of Asian Physicians from North Carolina are making a contribution to the Fund," said Lakshmi. "They will present the amount on August 15. It is amazing how many people have sent contributions, starting from just Rs.500," said Lakshmi Mani, who as president of the local branch of the Rotary Club has been actively involved in raising funds for both the Dosti fund and other charitable causes in the hospital. The hospital has been besieged by phone calls and e-mails with offers of support not just from India, but from other parts of the world. "This is the story of the common person who wants friendship and peace and not war," Dr. Shetty said.
For the soil scientist Nadeem Sajjad, a graduate of the University of Agricultural Sciences in Faislabad, and his wife Tayaba, the experience has been overwhelming. "We go back taking all the good wishes that our daughter has received here," Nadeem told Frontline. "There are no real differences amongst us. Our problems are the same: poverty, social injustice, lack of education and health care. As scientists, we have been trained to speak the truth and I find that whatever I have said has been taken in a positive way in both countries." Noor was diagnosed with VSD soon after she was born. "Our cardiologist in Pakistan, Dr. Masood Sadiq advised us to have the corrective surgery done before the end of 2003 and to get it done by Dr. Rajesh Sharma." In May, they started the process of visa application. They tried for flight bookings but found to their dismay that the flights were full for months in advance. It was at this time that the decision to restart bus services between the two countries was taken, and Nadeem immediately put in an application to the Indian Embassy for seats on the bus for his family, a request that was granted immediately.
Narayana Hrudayalaya has emerged as a major centre for cardiac care with a strong and overriding pro-poor approach to health care. The hospital offers free or subsidised treatment for poor patients from all parts of the subcontinent. They get at least three to four children from Bangladesh every day, at least one child a week from Pakistan, and patients from African countries such as Tanzania and Zambia. The hospital has set up tele-medical centres on a non-profit basis in Tanzania and Yemen. Dr. Shetty is convinced that Indian doctors will be called upon to offer their services in the years to come in several of the poorer countries of the world, notably Africa, where medical services are collapsing.