“Those of us who are in this world to educate — to care for — young children have a special calling: a calling that has very little to do with the collection of expensive possessions but has a lot to do with the worth inside of heads and hearts. In fact, that’s our domain: the heads and hearts of the next generation, the thoughts and feelings of the future.” — FRED M ROGERS
It would be perfectly believable if Dr Adeeb Rizvi had himself said these words, for he is indeed striving, and successfully accomplishing, exactly that. The renowned kidney specialist and founder of the Sindh Institute of Urology and Transplant (SIUT), has committed himself to not only treating kidney and liver patients for free, but to in fact create a generation of compassionate and socially responsible young men and women through a vigorous student volunteer programme that he conducts at his hospital.
How successful is he in achieving this lofty goal? Well, take for example Mohammad Ali, who was in the first batch of this programme six years ago and has since then been promoted to the position of ‘Captain,’ supervising new volunteers.
“Simply getting up early in the morning felt like a task on the first day of work at SIUT. Cleaning bathrooms and sweeping floors was awful, and I really wasn’t fond of kids,” he says, admitting that he was least bothered by anyone’s troubles as long as they did not affect him or his loved ones. “Now after six years, I ask for more work, decorate the Paediatrics Ward and don’t even hesitate to change the nappies of minor patients.”
The student volunteer programme was initiated in 2006, and so far 3,000 students in 150 batches have completed the course. Volunteers, divided into groups of ten and supervised by ‘captains’ and ‘co-captains’ (former volunteers who have become regulars), are required to buy lab coats that allow them entry into wards, operation theatres, dialysis rooms and out-patient departments. Serving in various wards and cleaning is mandatory.
Volunteers are given an orientation on Nursing, Gastroenterology, General Infection, Cardiology, Patient Care, Radiology and diabetes by senior doctors, who even let them observe kidney transplant surgeries and offer Q&A sessions. Recently, the syllabus was updated to include information about the organ donation law in Pakistan and bioethics. Altogether, it’s 30 hours of lectures and activities spread over five days.
At the end of this exercise, each volunteer is awarded a certificate and a first aid box in the closing ceremony, while their proud parents look on. And as a token of gratitude, the volunteers present flowers to their mentors.
Ceremony aside, sometimes emotions also get the better of the volunteers as they reflect on what they have learned at SIUT. That was certainly the case with Sakina, a graduating volunteer who tearfully declared, “Thank you mother for sending me to SIUT, because what I learned here no one can teach. I thank Allah who blessed me with health, wealth, happiness and love, and even if I bow to Him a million times, I won’t be able to thank Him enough. I guess the only way I can do that is by helping those less fortunate.”
Sakina isn’t the only one who’s gone through what can only be termed a life-changing experience. It’s quite an experience to see volunteers come in on the first day, chatting with each other and texting on their state-of-the-art cellphones. With their branded clothes and styled hair, it’s clear that they’re only there to fulfill a school requirement. But in just a day or two, the lab coat they are required to wear seems to work its magic: they are transformed and are seen washing bathrooms, sweeping floors and taking care of patients without hesitation.
The brainchild of Dr Rizvi himself, the student volunteer programme aims to induct impressionable minds and groom them with stern discipline so that they treat patients with care and dignity. Kishwer Zehra, Chairperson at the Resource Generation Office, says theirs is a purely philanthropic initiative in which both the volunteers and the patients benefit. Where many other organisations simply look to the bottom line, it’s clear that no one here is in it for the money.
For this reason, the SIUT has found support from various schools, both private and government-run, which have made the programme a part of their own curriculum. The Foundation Public School, for instance, “requires its 9th and 10th graders to participate in the programme,” says Yasmeen Minhas, the school’s founder principal, and at the end they are rewarded with certificates and additional marks.
The programme not only has humanitarian value, it also imparts practical training to school children and educates them about medical issues and procedures in a way that other hospitals offering volunteer programmes do not. “We have designed a course in which they learn [how to extend] moral help, learn how to coordinate between doctors and patients and also learn first aid,” says Kishwer apa, as she is affectionately called at the SIUT, an organisation she has been associated with since 1972. For her, watching often spoiled students transform into caring individuals is proof of a job well done.
Take the example of one volunteer who says, “According to my friends and mother, I was an extremely impatient and rude person. I never thought of cleaning even my own room, and for me poverty was associated with our house maids and servants only. But here I weep every day and can’t stop my tears from coming when I see such helpless people who don’t have money, health or, most importantly, love in their lives.”
Then there’s the grandmother who thought her grandson had things too easy in life and had never learned responsibility. Until he volunteered at the SIUT, that is. Now, she says, “he gives me medicines regularly and often checks on me during the night. He polishes his shoes himself and doesn’t allow our servants to do his errands for him.”
Principal Minhas is also all praise for the positive changes she has seen in her own students. “A group of students used to regularly terrify and play tricks on the school gatekeeper. But once they were back from their volunteer programme, they starting giving him relief during home time by taking over his position at the school gate and monitoring the kids. That way, the guard is be able to say his prayers and eat.”
There is even a visually impaired volunteer, Zainab, who croons popular melodies, accompanied by a keyboard player, to entertain children at the colorful Paediatrics Ward. “Echak dana peechak dana… Aaj main ooper, asman neechay… I sing and dance with them,” she says. “The best part is when they respond to me even in a state of pain and grief. I can’t see but, it gives me immense pleasure when I feel they are happy.”
Of course, there has been some resistance from certain students when they are asked to perform menial tasks. Once, at the start of the session, a boy who had been told to mop the floor stood up in protest. “You don’t know where I come from and who my father is,” he said angrily. “If he sees me doing this, he’ll be really angry.” He was asked to quit the programme, which he did, but only to return and complete the course. The second time around there was no complaint.
It’s not easy to change the hearts and minds of a generation of privileged young people, who have largely been raised in the comforts of their homes and schools, far away from the gritty realities of life.
But no matter how short Dr Adeeb Rizvi’s programme may be, this small window into what life on the other side of the tracks looks like, a life without health or wealth, has certainly instilled a realisation among student volunteers that being privileged means they owe a lot more to the less fortunate.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, December 9th, 2012.