Volume 6 - Issue 01
H2H: Sairam, Dr. Pandya. We are glad to have you in our studio and are really eager to know about your Russian Sai Medical Service experience because we have heard about it till only in bits and pieces from various sources, and now we can get it from the horse’s mouth, as they say. So, tell us, when was this camp held? And who organised this camp?
Dr. Nikhila Pandya (NP): Sairam - I am so happy to be here. The Russian experience was truly an eye-opener for me and nothing gives me more pleasure than sharing this story with Sai brothers and sisters. The camp was held by the Medical wing of the U.K. Sai Organization, and it was in the month of June 2007 – between the end of that month and the beginning of July.
From the UK contingent, we were comprised of the pediatricians, ophthalmologists, psychiatrists, homeopathy specialists, optometrists and dentists. The latter were very busy and were in great demand because dental care, we noticed, was quite poor there, as it was expensive and people couldn’t afford it.
The whole trip, from the day we started and returned to the UK was for 9 days, though the camp itself ran for 5 full days. We saw the last patient who came and nobody went away without treatment. Every single patient was attended to, however late it was.
H2H: You must have needed help of interpreters.
NP: Yes, we had interpreters with us all the time. In fact, the youngest interpreter was a girl named Macha and she was only ten. And when she was asked how she felt, she said, “I am very grateful to Swami and my parents for having sent me here,” and she would stay up till 12 and 1 o’clock , busy with the patients! There was no sleep for her either, because she was such a good interpreter in English! In fact, the interpreters wouldn’t leave us even for a moment – they were with us all the time! They were our ears, our mouth – everything. We couldn’t have done it without them.
H2H: As a pediatrician, what was your experience in treating the kids?
NP: Well, Paediatrics was not busy, because the child care in Russia is good. But the problem with the children is their teeth. In Russia, they have a drink called Compoth. It is basically made of a lot of dried fruits, boiled in sugar water, and they drink this all the time; the sugar present there rots their teeth. So they have extremely poor dentition. Therefore, having a dentist at hand for these children, was a big help to get their teeth sorted out.
Since my counter was not that busy, on the second day, I was wondering if pediatrics-wise, I could do something else, or if could I make home visits in that Russian village. So my team said, “Yes! Go do the home visits”. So we decided to visit the children who are handicapped, who can’t really travel and can’t be brought to the center. I asked the nurse at the center if she could be kind enough to come along, because she knew where the people lived in the old little huts. She agreed and we sat in this really rickety van, and went to this house and if there was one reason for Swami sending me to Russia, it was for this child I found there.
Her name is Shwetlana; ‘Shweta’ which means ‘brightness’. In Sanskrit it has the same meaning as in Russian. Seven years old, she is the only child of her parents, but stricken with epilepsy and severe spastic cerebral palsy. She did not have many problems cognitively or intellectually, but had severe cerebral palsy because of lack of oxygen during birth. And the house that Shwethlana lived in was, literally, just a temporary shed-like shelter, really basic.
So I went in, it was just a small dark room, and because of her cerebral palsy, she had lots of contractures making any movement of her body almost impossible; she was all folded up and her whole body was completely twisted! She was sitting in a pram that was made just for her, and it was not even a regular pram. So, I saw this crumpled child in the pram and the only thing that would have been important for her, was posture. She couldn’t even see to look up because she was so twisted! And my heart really bled! My hands were tied and I thought, “What can I do for this child?” because if she doesn’t have a proper chair, a wheel chair, with the positioning of her neck and her spine, there’s no way this child can ever go anywhere or travel, or even function – she was so convoluted!
So I came back quite dejected after visiting her, and tried to speak to her mother. I adjusted her anti-epileptic dose as she was having epileptic fits in front of us. I told the mother whatever little physiotherapy she could manage. But I knew, the main thing was this chair! So I came back quite despondent and was thinking, “What was the point of my visit?” because there was nothing that we could do for this child.
Suddenly, one of the Russians came to my room with an interpreter. Dr. Upadhyaya was in the dining room, it was 12 midnight. I went down and Dr. Upadhyaya asked me, “How is the Camp going?” I said, “Well, it is not very busy at all for the pediatricians but, I was wondering whether I could discuss something with you?” And he said, “Yes.” Then I mentioned about this child. The next moment he said, “We will buy her the chair from our Organization.” And I went back and visited her again and told her mother, “Just give us the details and we will buy her the chair.”
So this went on, and I visited her every day. On the third day, when I went there with the interpreter, just like all previous days her mother never smiled, but every time we visited Shwethlana, she had the most winsome smile in the world. She always beamed and recognized us, when we went to see her, but not her mother. The poor lady, truly, didn’t have anything to smile about; she had this child and was poor.
I asked the interpreter whether we could buy something for Shwetlana next time, so we would not go empty handed. And so, we went to the store - there were little stores there – and picked up a mixture of little buns, breads and eggs, and something that they could use. And I took the bag to the clinic. It was the last day and I thought ‘Today when I go, I won’t go empty handed’ because I knew how poor they were. Food is something that if you can give to the one who needs, then that is the most you can do. Medicine is secondary - you can’t have medicines in a vacuum, you have to have food.
So we picked up the food and I kept the bag aside. At two o’ clock in the afternoon, one of the Russian interpreters came and said, “Dr. Nikila, you have to pack up now and leave immediately to the other site!” (The medical team was divided into two groups attending to two villages.) I said, “Okay. Today?” He said, “Yes, go pack up and leave; there’s an orphanage there where you have to go and see the other children.” So here I had this packet of food, not knowing what to do with it. There was no way that this packet of food could have been delivered unless I went with one of the Russians to Shwethlana’s house.
I was stuck! I said, “Okay, never mind, maybe it wasn’t meant to go.” So I picked up the bag and I walked out of the clinic, and who do I see? Shwethlana’s mother standing there saying she came late for the dentist’s appointment! There was Swami again! I just handed her the bag and for the first time in three days, I saw her smile. So, the Russian trip for us pediatricians was not that busy; but I felt that Swami sent us for Shwethlana.
The chair details were given and after we returned we told them what chairs we wanted. I was in email contact with the Sai brother and I hadn’t heard back from them and was wondering what had happened to the chair. I felt that I had to share my Russian experience with my local group at Rochester, in UK in the form of a power point presentation, telling them all the stories. So, that evening, we had Sai bhajans, and the presentation. I came home, it was about 12 at night and I thought ‘let me just email our Russian Sai brother and find out why he hasn’t written to me’. When I emailed him, he wrote back immediately saying, “Thank you sister for writing; I had lost your email!” And he sent me the details of the chair and it was delivered to Shwethlana!
H2H: It is truly amazing how Sai works these miracles in our lives! You said you served in the orphanages. What was your experience there?
NP: Well, there are a lot of orphanages and in Russia they are quite different. These orphanages help out because the children are not taken care of by the parents, either due to drug addiction or alcoholism. There’s a lot of drug addiction there, especially in the lower economic strata, so the children are taken away in care. The orphanages are very well organized. The kids are very well looked after, very well-fed and given good clothes, but they are kept in the orphanage till they are adopted or till they are able to go to another place – it’s a temporary place before they go off.
So, we were just screening the children, and the kind of problems we saw there were children with psychological problems, because of change of places from one orphanage to another till they went to the care-takers, or before they were adopted. So they had psychological problems, and were quite withdrawn.
They (Orphanage managers) asked if there was anything we could do for them, so, we said, “Basically, they just need counseling - to be with them.” That is where our psychiatrists were very helpful and at one of the camps, there was a young adolescent, who came to the Camp to see them and said he was feeling suicidal. So, at the end of the Camp, on the last day, he was taken to the other Camp and the psychiatrist talked to him. All that the boy needed was to be talked to; he didn’t have anybody to talk to earlier. So the team of two psychiatrists talked to this boy about why he was having these problems and gave him various measures to manage his depression, which was all the psychological help he needed.
H2H: So the impact the camp had was substantial. Okay, before we proceed further, why do not you tell us about the genesis of the camp? When and how did it all begin?
NP: Yes, I think the Camp actually began from the airport itself! We have a very interesting story to share here. We were all allowed 8 kilos each and the rest of it had to be equipment, machinery and gloves because we had to take everything personally. All the equipment, be it the ophthalmic, dental or the sterilizers, were quite heavy. So we were all busy re-packing at the airport and putting everything in the bags, and the lady at the counter was told that we are actually a Medical Charity Camp going across, although we had only tourist visas for Russia because that’s the way the system works.
At the airport, she was quite kind – she allowed each of us extra 5 kilos and at the end of it, we were still very over-weight. And she said she could only do so much and we had to pay just the little bit of the excess after what she had already given us. And the amount came to 405 British Pounds - which is quite a substantial amount. Although we were a bit unnerved, all of us said that each of us could share the amount and there wouldn’t be a problem.
In the mean time, one of the organizers, Urvi, suddenly said, “No, it’s 405; that adds up to 9. Swami is with us on this one.” And she asked the lady at the desk whether she could speak with the manager. Then the manager came down and he said, “How much more luggage do you want to put through? You don’t have to pay the 405 pounds.” So we got away absolutely free with the entire extra luggage into Russia, without paying a single penny! So Swami was there right at the start as well!
The Camp was fixed to be held at a site called Vellsk, which is quite further up-north. It was an 18 hour train journey from St. Petersburg, where we landed. Our fellow brothers and sisters - the Russians and the Germans - had gone earlier to Vellsk to set up the Camp, which was planned in the school premises of a very poor area, where there was hardly any medical care available. The Camp, therefore, was for that community.
The Russian and German team traveled all the way up to Vellsk to set it up. When they began setting it up, they were told by the Church authorities there that they would have to fold up. They were not allowed to hold the Camp there for various reasons. So they had an 18 hour journey, all the way back. Therefore, in all, it was a 36 hour journey for them in the preparation for the Camp, but they had an interesting experience to tell of how they were extremely brave at the start of the camp. Rainer is here and he can tell you more about it.
H2H: Yes, Mr. Rainer please narrate to us that inspiring incident.
RN : You mean the experience with the bus! Well, the drive back from Vellsk to the area around St. Petersburg was 18 hours, but it was really fun – we were always singing bhajans, German and international songs. So, it was a very bright atmosphere together. It was the first opportunity to have personal contact because we had time. There were two buses, around twenty people in each of them. We were four Germans and the rest were Russians; the English group wasn’t there at that time.
In one of the buses, a lady said, “Let us start with the Gayatri singing.” And all of a sudden, impulsively she sang and everybody joined in. Everybody was singing the Gayatri and immediately after that, one of the smaller buses – there was a third, small bus with about 8 people or so in it – got off the street and just fell down the slope. It turned over and came to lie with the wheels upside down!
Everybody stopped and we were rather frightened, but still calm. Then, we saw people coming out, but the bus was wrecked. By Swami’s Grace nobody was hurt! We could just continue normally without any fear.
H2H: That was dramatic. So what happened next? You had an alternate site?
NP: Yes, the Camp site had to be changed, but at the last moment, somehow, we had another Camp site which was only four hours away from St. Petersburg, in a village called Alokofshina. The new site was placed in a ‘holy triangle’ with three famous churches as places of pilgrimage around us. Our camp started with a visit to the church of St. Alexander Svirisky, a monk so pure who had the holy vision of the Trinity. It is a church of healing and miracles, where his body has been kept for over 200 years without any decay. We were able to touch his feet and seek blessings on the first day itself. The Frescos on the walls, which are old, have not needed restoration and with every year the colors are getting clearer on their own!
We then branched out into two groups – the psychiatrists and some doctors in one group; while dentists, ophthalmologists, pediatricians in another group, so we could cover two villages and mix between the two. The group itself was therefore, separated at that time.
H2H: How was the village where you worked first? Can you describe their living conditions, environment, etc.?
NP: Yes, the village had a sizeable elderly population. The youngsters in Russia leave the rural areas to go away to the city to work. It was summer holidays for the children, and so all the grandchildren from the towns were sent to the villages to be with their grandparents. Therefore, we saw lots of little children running about.
The village was quite small in itself with quite a tiny population. It had one shop, a little hospital which provides basic care, and a maternal and child health dispensary, where we were working as pediatricians. But in Russia, there’s lots of space, and it is filled with trees. And we were fortunate to go at the time of the year when it’s called the White Night, since it gets dark only for a few hours. So, it was very bright and just beautiful. My first experience of Russia was one of, “What a beautiful country it is!’
The people are very friendly there; you will find all these grandparents, working on their little patches of gardens, growing their own potatoes and vegetables. They were extremely poor! They have very limited income and the medical facilities for them are quite minimal. Dental care is something that they don’t easily find and it’s quite expensive. So all of them suffer from severe dental problems like caries, and the dentists, therefore, on the camp were very busy.
Although the villages we visited in Russia were only four hours away from St. Petersburg, which is quite opulent, large, and beautiful, and is, in fact, one of the most beautiful cities in the world, the villages somehow don’t get the benefit of that kind of money. And ever since Communism changed, health-care facilities are not quite optimum, especially for the old-age pensioners and the poor children. Dental and ophthalmic care are beyond the means of the villagers; they do not have money to buy the prescription glasses. So the two groups were extremely busy, and for the ophthalmologists and dentists, it was non-stop work.
Dr. Girish - whom we endearingly call Girishbhai - the dentist in the trip, was most busy, and allow me to share one of his stories. There was an old lady, 80 or 90 years old, who came to him. Her tooth had broken in half and the half-tooth remained stuck in the gums. I was watching the extraction that Girishbhai was working on, in between seeing my patients, and he said to me, “Please pray very hard because when such a thing happens in old age, it is a very delicate situation. The teeth that break get stuck to the bone and you have to fracture the bone.” So we all said a big “Sairam” and the tooth came out effortlessly! The lady was so happy that she was kissing the hands of Girishbhai and even proposed to him! It was such a sweet moment! She said the tooth had been giving her so much trouble!
Another time an Estonian middle heavy weight boxer came due to broken and destroyed teeth, which meant he could never smile. His teeth and smile were restored, and as a sign of gratitude he brought 2 big jugs of milk for us at the campsite! The patients were grateful for the kindness shown and often brought bouquets of hand picked forest flowers with so much love, or fresh vegetables from their little kitchen gardens.
Similarly, the ophthalmologists were very busy. The old people were waiting in lines and queues from the morning just to get the prescription glasses so that they would be able to see! Unable to afford the normal prescription glasses, they couldn’t see!
The glasses were such a bonus to them! The doctors therefore worked all day. As we were split in two groups, we could cover two villages at one time. We were put up in a school which had closed down because of summer vacation.
H2H: Was the accommodation comfortable?
NP: Well, as I said, we stayed in a school – there was a big room which was converted into a dormitory. And the nicest part was staying with all the Russian Sai devotees. We got to know them on a one-to-one basis. It was lovely.
The lady doing seva in the kitchen and cooking the most delicious meals for us, I later realized was the secretary of the Sai Organisation in Russia. Such humility was touching. The Russian devotees, I felt, are true devotees - humble, loving, kind and compassionate. They follow Swami’s teachings with great dedication.
So many of them hadn’t even visited Prasanthi, because it is quite expensive to travel. But their devout faith and devotion really moved us. And they follow Swami’s teachings absolutely to a T! They have tailored their life to that! I have a very interesting story. This lady, who was driving us, was doing seva, and she had a car. So I asked her, “Is this your car?” She said, “Yes, Swami gifted it to me, because I am very poor; I can’t afford a car, but somehow, I could buy this car.” And she was using that car for transporting doctors, and ferrying people across from site to site for the Medical Service of the Sai Organization.
H2H: So while you were busy serving the Russians rural folk, the Sai devotees from Russia were serving you! Were your activities restricted to consultation and treatment, or did you engage in any other activities too?
NP: Yes, we were busy offering Health Education. The Dentists had printed out things in Russian, explaining to them how to prevent caries, what should be eaten, how one should brush their teeth at night and things like that. Most of the things they weren’t aware of!
H2H: Mr. Rainer, you came with three other Germans to help at the Camp. Were they doctors? How did you participate in the project?
RN: Yes, we were the German group of four and being non-medical people, we were not taking part in seeing the patients. We, on the other hand, were busy doing renovation work in the school building - repairing windows, re-plumbing the toilets, etc.
And the funny thing for me, personally, was that there was nobody who had a guitar, and at the last moment before I started, I had, just by intuition, picked up my guitar along. Although it wasn’t customary to sing bhajans, or spiritual songs, I just took my instrument wherever I could and I sang along. So that was a little contribution for everybody because the Russians like singing; they love music. There was an older lady who had an accordion who used to play in the evenings. So, there were cultural programs and we shared joyfully Sai love thorough rejuvenating music.
We used to sing for the devotees who were doing work, in the mornings or in the evenings; we were all contributing whatever we could. This was one thing that we four could do to make the atmosphere lively.
And the other idea was of the re-conciliation of the Germans and the Russians. Though I cannot tell all stories that happened, it was just about getting in contact and knowing them at a deeper level. When we sat at the tables, there were so many discussions about the past - the Second World War when the Germans invaded - and for me, personally, my father was a soldier, and he was on the front in St. Petersburg as part of the group of invaders. After that, he was a Russian prisoner for 5 years, and he came back to Germany, when I was 5 years old, in 1950. So there is a cloudy history of the past between the Germans and the Russians.
There was always this topic of the past, of the war period, and this brought so much healing for the Germans and the Russians, because it was easy to confess that my father was here fighting against you, but now I am here and can find friendship. Just being there as a family under Swami’s guidance and under the idea of unity, was wonderful. We felt we are all one.
H2H: All brought about by Swami’s Love!
RN: Yes! And it was on a very deep level; there were people saying we had our father being killed by the Germans, and we were always against Germany, but now we see you here! So all these bitter feelings were gone, we were just one! And I experienced that all past problems were solved all of a sudden when we were together, and would sing, eat, enjoy and smile. It was just so wonderful!
And when we came back to Germany, everybody was talking about this Camp and the friendship between the Russians and the Germans, and Swami has stressed often that we, the Russians and the Germans, should do things together.
H2H: Returning to patient care, what do you think was the most important thing that those villagers needed?
NP: Well, I think they surely needed dental care. They may have had ophthalmologists, but earlier they couldn’t get their glasses. The other important thing was the health education because there were so many young mothers who came to the clinic, who really didn’t have an idea about how to rear the child, what things are good and not so good for the young one. There were so many mothers who came with these little babies – very healthy babies – but they just needed the right advice, like the teeth care, not to give a sugary drink with the bottle, other little things like what else they can give them to eat, etc.
There was a young mother, who had been told apparently by a hospital earlier, that her baby had problems at delivery. The tiny one was really thriving, but when the mother came to the clinic, she was really scared, and she said that she had been told that her child’s brain had been damaged. But there was nothing in the child to even indicate that she was even remotely brain damaged – the baby was so healthy! So, just letting her know that the baby is normal relieved her so much!
So, I think, it was spending time with them which was most important and vital. The old, especially, were very lonely; they don’t have people to talk to, are poor, and have lots of medical complications – hypertension, diabetes, arthritis – and now that the longevity has gone up, they live longer. It is therefore that I feel giving them quality time was more than enough, which was, in fact, more important than just giving them glasses and food. And of course, our interpreters were extremely helpful in that aspect.
H2H: At any point of time, did the villagers wonder who you were? Why were you doing all this for them? Did you have any other interesting interactions with them?
NP: Yes, the villagers did ask about us and we told them we were from the Sai Organization, but they weren’t so inquisitive, they just wanted help. There was a little incident with a Homeopathic Doctor, who was also there with us and she had all these little pills in her small box. Her clinic was very busy.
So, there was an old lady in the line, and she had asthmatic symptoms. This doctor gave her all the asthma medications, and she went away very happy. She was trying to tell the doctor that, “Here in this country, we don’t keep buying medicines because they are quite expensive, but we use some roots and some leaves, [some kind of herbal preparation] and that makes the cough better as well.” “That is very interesting! I wasn’t aware of it,” our doctor replied. And then, the conversation ended, and she left.
Next day, the line was still long and this lady returned again! So the Homeopathic doctor said, “I already saw you yesterday, I have to see the others today. I have actually given you medicines for at least a month. You won’t need to see me back again soon; you need to try those medicines first.” But she said, “No, no, I am not here for the medicines.” She had a little bag with her, she opened that up and said, “I have come to give you this.” The doctor asked, “What is this?” She had brought for him special roots and leaves – she had gone in the night, into the woods, picked up all the roots and leaves and come to give it to the Homeopathic doctor! So that was her way of saying ‘Thank you’. It was very touching to see that.
H2H: Every story and anecdote connected with this camp is so moving! Each day was filled with so many surprises and instances of His love. How was the last day?
NP: On the last day of the Camp, our Russian and German brothers and sisters, had organized a sort of entertainment program in a hall where we were having our meals; and that’s when Rainer’s guitar too proved very useful. And there were lovely Sai bhajans, just impromptu, the UK group sang four bhajans, which were quite easy bhajans even for the Russian devotees to join in.
For the whole evening we enjoyed songs, dances and bhajans, and there was a very famous opera singer. In fact, she is almost equivalent to India’s famous singer Lata Mangeshkar! All her operas and theatrical programs are fully packed. She is Russian, and a great Sai devotee; I forget her name, but she had the most divine voice and she sang at the church for us. She was delighted to be there and to do the seva. She said she comes and does this Camp to just get rid of her ego. She cleans the bathrooms, and does any work, seven days in a year, so that she can grow spiritually.
So, on the last day she entertained us with her mellifluous voice. It felt so divine listening to her. I had an old Shirdi Baba pendant which I gave her. Her joy knew no bounds. She wept and said,” I have been wanting a Shirdi Baba pendant for so long….. How did you know?” I knew Swami knew and used me as an instrument. Also, on this final day there was a beautiful double rainbow. I feel Swami is smiling at us every time I see a rainbow. I told this to Dr. Upadhyaya and he had a lovely story to share.
Dr. Upadhyaya was going on his first Seva mission to Russia a few years ago and was a little apprehensive. He prayed to Swami to be with him. On the flight he looked out of the window and saw a “round rainbow” which is very unusual.Being an ophthalmologist he was worried about a condition called glaucoma which can cause blindness quickly! One often sees haloes in this condition.
Not believing what he had just seen, wondering if others could see this as well, he asked the stewardess. She said, “How unusual – a round rainbow!” Then, at the airport he was drawn to a smaller taxi for no reason. The Russian brother with him suggested they take a bigger taxi, but he insisted on the smaller one…..Sitting in the taxi on the dash board was Swami’s picture surrounded by a round rainbow!
H2H: Absolutely amazing! Swami every time has a new and interesting way to say, “I am there…why fear, when I am here”.
NP: Oh yes, every time he surprises us and fill us with His love.
H2H: Thank you Dr. Nikhila Pandya and Mr. Rainer. We would love to hear you again, about other similar service projects, especially the one done in Malawi, though we did have a story on this project in H2H in the November issue. We hope we will have the opportunity of more such sessions in the future. Do drop in at the studio next time you are here. You are always welcome.
NP: Sure. It is our joy and privilege to share His love. Thank you. Sairam.
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Vol 6 Issue 01 - JANUARY 2008
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