Dr. Shelly Batra

From Operating Rooms to Dust Tracks, Part 1: How a doctor found the ‘invisible poor,’ then founded an organization to help them

Editor’s note: This is the first of two blogs written by Dr. Shelly Batra, founder and president of Operation ASHA. Today, she tells how she first made contact with India’s “invisible poor” and gradually became disillusioned with her work at a plush corporate hospital. In part two, she’ll tell how she founded a health services delivery organization and discuss its plans to expand access to disadvantaged communities worldwide. Please check out part two, in which Dr. Batra discusses how Operation ASHA moved beyond rhetoric to action.

As a young medical student in the ’70s, I dreamt of becoming a surgeon. Everything about surgery fascinated me: the long hours, the sleepless nights, the unmistakable adrenalin rush and sense of satisfaction of saving a human life.

Three decades later, I had reached the pinnacle of my success. I had a reputation as an accomplished and compassionate surgeon and was wooed by fancy private hospitals with even fancier pay packages and perks. I selected the best New Delhi could offer: a plush corporate hospital with the best equipment and where operating itself was a luxury.

But something was missing. Despite the state-of-the-art equipment and fat pay packet, doubts and a sense of unease remained. The place was too sanitized! Everything was spick and span, and worked with clock-like regularity. Even the patients – well dressed and well behaved – exuded wealth and leisure.

I missed the milling crowds of my public hospital days; the teeming mass of humanity that constituted a hospital, the thousands who came from far-off villages and thronged the corridors waiting for treatment.

Missing were the families living beneath tarp sheets, the emaciated young men carrying frail elders in their arms, and anemic expectant mothers struggling with broods of howling, hungry children while coping with the demands of pregnancy. I missed the vibrant kaleidoscope of the myriad of activities that made a public hospital.

(Children in New Delhi, left. Photo by Annie Perez)

Gandhi once said, “India’s population lives in its villages.” Here, “village” represents all disadvantaged areas where the infrastructure we take for granted – health, education, sanitation – is prominent because of its absence.

Those who have visited India have seen urban slums, straggling hutments and shanties standing cheek-by-jowl with glittering, imposing mansions and skyscrapers. There, those regarded worse than human excreta make their home. They are the invisible poor, faceless and voiceless, of no use to anybody. The well-off regard them as carriers of filth and disease. Politicians ignore them because they have no vote.

Some have huts made of cardboard boxes covered by plastic sheets. There is no running water and there are no toilets. There are no roads, only miles of dust tracks where humans live in subhuman conditions.

One day, I gathered my courage and entered one such slum. The stench was unbearable. I had never seen such a harrowing sight. Women and children scrabbled through mountains of garbage with their bare hands, picking up food and putting it in their mouths. I was close to tears, nausea and anger. I ran in panic, trying to shut my eyes to what I had just witnessed – the infinite degradation of mankind.

But I went again, and again. The next time with cartons of protein biscuits, and then with a stethoscope, a blood pressure apparatus and a prescription pad. I sat on a pile of stones and treated patients for diarrhea, dysentery, malnutrition, anemia, skin infections, eye infections, cuts, burns, whatever. With great reservation, I admitted some and operated on others, worried about who would pay for the admission and medicine.

A few of my fellow surgeons joined hands and raised funds for my work. Things became a little better. I would go to the slums armed with the knowledge that I had at least some of the funds necessary to serve many more.

But one day, my fancy private hospital threw me out for not operating on enough wealthy patients. They informed me hospital earnings had dwindled because my patients only got admitted to the free ward. I was working harder than ever, but they seemed to not care. My fellow surgeons jeered at me.

Even my personal life suffered. My friends deserted me and the people I cared deeply about turned their backs on me simply because I would ask for funds to treat just one poor person. I quickly became a pariah myself, forgotten like those in the slums. I had gone from operating rooms to the dust tracks.

But in those dust tracks is where I found what was missing: My dream job at Operation ASHA.

In part two, Dr. Batra explains how the organization gained its focus and seeks sustainability.

This blog originally appeared on the World Bank’s Development Marketplace blog.

Education, Health Care
public health