12/01/2015 8:03 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:24 AM IST

A Peek Into The Lives Of Impoverished Cancer Patients

A child looks out of his partly demolished house at a slum in New Delhi, India, Sunday, March 18, 2012. (AP Photo/Mustafa Quraishi)
A child looks out of his partly demolished house at a slum in New Delhi, India, Sunday, March 18, 2012. (AP Photo/Mustafa Quraishi)

Delhi has a heart if you care to look for it. It beats strong and steady in the neglected parts of the city where the underprivileged reside. We discover it as we criss-cross the city visiting the homes of people seriously sick with cancer.

These are people who are dying and whose families possess next to nothing. The majority of them live in squalor and hunger having spent precious resources on futile treatments. But, they are not yet ready to abandon hope, both for themselves and for those they love. So, when we visit the young boy whose father, a daily wage labourer, left the family in despair when he realised that he could not afford his son's treatment, we find that all he wants is food for his younger siblings and his mother. Our next stop takes us to the doorstep of a middle-aged man who turns his face towards the wall as we enter. He looks defeated. We soon learn why. His children have had to be pulled out of school. He wants help to stand up one more time to support his family.

There are many such people who inspire us as we visit a neglected corner of our city. They come in all shapes, sizes and ages but they have one thing in common, amazing resilience. A resilience born from an ability to look beyond themselves no matter what the circumstances. I vividly recall an afternoon when I accompanied a WHO mission-head, based in Geneva, on a home visit. She had spent the morning talking to an IT-type who had just informed her that India had beat poverty and so was not prepared for what she saw. Our patient, an elderly woman, lived in a tiny room with her children and grandchildren. When we arrived, the big heap under a blanket slowly gave way as family members stepped aside so that we could enter. A chair was commandeered for the visitor who was welcomed with an aerated drink. So overwhelmed was she by the straitened circumstances of the family and the warmth of her welcome that she burst into tears. The patient had to assure her that it was not as bad as it looked; the youngest son had a job of sorts.

One of the positives of such a cheek by jowl existence is that idea of personal space expands. This is sometimes difficult for foreigners to comprehend. A British nurse associated with us in the early days was appalled by the fact that whatever we said to our patient was being overheard not only by members of the immediate family but also by concerned relatives and friends. "But there is no privacy!" she would exclaim to everyone's amusement. The idea of leaving their patient alone is unthinkable for most families.

Our visits are often the most anticipated event of the day. Patients who can no longer leave home have a reason to dress up and feel more like their old selves. As we enter, orders are sent out for refreshments and we are made to feel like honoured guests. If money or sugar is short, a visit to the neighbour quickly remedies this. It is a thank you and it would be selfish for us not to accept this hospitality. Ours is a free service; the balance must be set aright as far as possible.

We are privileged to witness the resilience of our unsung countrymen and women. The words of Hellen Keller ring in our ears: "The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart."