No doubt, many thought it impossible or at the very least highly unlikely, that a very small group of polio survivors from Australia would make the time and effort to raise enough money (over $60,000) to travel over 22,000 kms to India and back to help with the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI).
Not only did we fund the trip ourselves (with wonderful support from so many generous people, of course) but we also were able to make a contribution of nearly $40,000 to Polio Australia and Rotary’s End Polio Now campaign to both support Aussie polio survivors and to fight for polio’s extinction.
18 months ago, at Polio Australia’s Australasia-Pacific Post-Polio Conference in Sydney, Rotary’s Jenny Horton planted a seed, which finally came to fruition 4 weeks back. Jenny’s ‘planting’ was very gentle and very uncomplicated. She simply said “Given your passion and desire to end polio,” (earlier I had been up on stage literally crying about ending polio in the world), “have you ever thought about going to India to help out with the GPEI? You would be blown away by their response to you going!”
And Jenny was 100% right! In fact, we were all completely overwhelmed by the happenings and incredible Indian and Rotarian hospitality shown to our delegation from Geelong (Victoria). Our group was made up of myself, my wife (and carer), Annie, and fellow survivors Jennifer Merrett, Jan McDonald and Dalice Dalton. Each of us (except for my wife) contracted polio more than 60 years ago.
We made this exhausting (and exhilarating) trip to help keep India polio-free and rid the world of polio forever; to support polio survivors in India and Australia; and, as a mark of respect, to honour and express our gratitude to, not just our parents, but the parents of all sick children for the massive time, love and effort that they each put into their kids. Perhaps just think about that for a moment; what was the commitment to you as a child with polio from your parents? I suspect it was quite substantial. It certainly was for each of us.
So what did we do on this truly breathtaking and amazing 10 day trip?
- Helped launch a polio survivors support group (with Rotary’s help) and offered thoughts and ongoing guidance for the establishment of a rehabilitation centre for polio survivors in Vysag, India;
- Addressed polio survivors in Vysag about the importance of creating support networks;
- Attended a school awareness rally and street parade with hundreds of children;
- Met with Rotarians from all around the world, polio survivors, and doctors from Delhi and Vysag;
- Spoke at a Rotary Club meeting and at an International Fellowship Dinner in Delhi before a huge international audience, which included being interviewed on South Korean TV;
- And, we got to do something our parents wanted so desperately but were unable to do for us (because there was no vaccine available), we got to vaccinate some kids against polio!
I’ve got to tell you that, particularly for me, immunising those children was a very humbling moment and special feeling. But enough from me, here’s some of what the others thought of our time in India.
What an amazing journey we had. We left with the idea of helping, talking, inspiring and sharing, but we got so much more back. We met heart surgeon, Dr Nischal Pandey, and polio survivor, Sai Padma, and her husband, Anand, all chipping away tirelessly to help those less fortunate. All probably working too hard, but never appearing to falter.
Though we did not physically work hard, just being there seemed to really please the locals. Perhaps it helps with publicity, as I am sure we were photographed enough to be seen in the local media. And Gary was a hit! In the slums, people stopped and stared (maybe it was his high-tech wheelchair). At the Rotary dinner he got a standing ovation!
In the bedlam and uproar of life, small bands of people are constantly working for a better life for the disadvantaged. There seems to be a resilience imbedded in Indian life, perhaps the belief in Karma, that keeps them stoically keeping on despite the conditions. Amidst the smog and poverty people are seen quietly sweeping their little patch of dust. In the chaos of traffic moving in all directions the drivers remain calm and move over for others.
Young polio survivors with deformed limbs could not bring their crutches into a Rotary/Global Aid meeting, all for the want of rubber stoppers on them to stop them sliding on hard surfaces. So they “good naturedly” they left them at the door and swiftly crawled in.
In one area, roads were not used by cars between 6.00 and 7.30am so that people could have a morning walk, exercise, do yoga, and meditate before the day started – and they did. Hordes were out enjoying the mild weather. At 7.30am on the dot, the chaos returns. An amazing, inspiring, emotional journey!
I have heard it said that India changes perspectives. It does! I keep thinking of the little street that I walked down with Annie and the people, open drains and strange smells there. The people looked content in such extreme poverty. That was such an eye opener for me. I was glad it was decided not to stay to administer the vaccine when we reached the polio booth in that particular area, for whatever reason, because if we did, I would have cried.
National Immunisation Day (NID) was amazing. It was great to see the little kids delivered by car, bike or foot. Generally, with happy little faces. So good to be a part of this.
Seeing Sai Padma and Anand and learning of their work at Global Aid India was inspiring. Spending 3 days with them in Vysag was wonderful. I’m sure Sai’s vision of a rehabilitation centre for polio survivors will become a reality.
Within my mind, I have examined so many aspects of our journey. For me, a rich bond of friendship emerged with each person in Gary’s Polio Project to India team. We shared something quite unique together, which is meaningful in the big picture. And thanks to Gary’s initiative, we made a difference in some small way. India is magical, it has beckoning powers and I hope to return.
A wonderful trip; the people we met along the way were amazing. Loved the children, so great to experience a National Immunisation Day and all that went with it in India.
How lucky was I to be part of such an exciting project. India was a country I had always been interested in visiting ever since researching it as a Girl Guide for my Queens Guide Emblem. Also the fact that I am a polio survivor made it a project close to my heart and the thought of being part of such a worthwhile cause left me with no doubt that this trip was for me.
The first day after our arrival in Delhi (the night before) started with a breakfast meeting with heart specialist, Dr Nischal Pandey, who quickly became our friend. He does so much work for underprivileged and sick kids both in Delhi and in his home village, some 100s of kilometres away. Such a gentle, unassuming, kind and inspiring man. We would meet up with Dr Nischal again on Day 5 at the NID when our dedicated drivers picked us up and drove for a couple of hours to a private school in Ghaziabad. After an entertaining chat with the vice principle and meeting lots of Rotarians from all around the world, we then gathered together in the assembly hall for some entertainment from the children. They performed some traditional dances and played out a skit where they cleverly portrayed what was to happen on NID and how the poliovirus would be eradicated.
We then assembled outside for the Polio Awareness Rally. Another lump formed in my throat as we five Aussies strove to get to the front to march next to our glorious Aussie flag. I felt so proud to be there. We had flags and banners all reading “Keep India Polio Free” and this is what we chanted all through the streets as loud as we could. I’ve never partaken in a rally before and I had a ball.
Hopefully, all that provides you with a good sense of what we were so fortunate to experience in India in January. We five Aussie travellers were a great fit. We were all on the same page as far as respect, care and consideration for each other. I couldn’t have wanted a better team to be a part of.
More about the End Polio Now campaign in India
The aim by 2.5 million volunteers, was to immunise 172 million children under 5 years old, over two days, to minimise the risk of the poliovirus coming back from Pakistan or Afghanistan and re-infecting Polio Free India.
Although India is now free from polio, it doesn’t mean that they can drop their guard (or the world for that matter). Very close by is Pakistan and Afghanistan which still harbour small pockets of polio.
Small pockets of polio left unattended means a global problem again of possibly 200,000 new cases within 10 years according to the World Health Organisation. We’re very close to reaching a polio free world. However, until we do, we must and will keep immunising as many children as possible to spare them from a life of disability and pain.