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A haven of hope and care

The volunteers of the organisation, `Ashraya', work tirelessly to make it a sanctuary for the cancer patients of the Regional Cancer Centre.


DISTURBED BY the loneliness and sense of helplessness that often engulf cancer patients and their families, a housewife decided to do her bit by volunteering to work at the Regional Cancer Centre (RCC) in the city. That was in 1996.

Little did she realise that her efforts would pave the way for the formation of an organisation called `Ashraya,' which now has a membership of over 230 people.

Today, `Ashraya' helps cancer patients at the RCC - especially those from the economically weaker sections of society - in a number of ways.

From guiding the patients to the appropriate wards and doctors, to finding affordable accommodation for the relatives of out-station patients and disbursing financial assistance, `Ashraya' has become a refuge for hundreds of people afflicted by cancer. Not only does it provide care but also gives emotional support to the anxious families of cancer patients. Rehabilitation is yet another major area of work.

Says Sarasamma, whose son Nithin is a patient of the RCC, "But for `Ashraya,' I would not have been able to treat my son. We have to spend around Rs. 1,200 every day for his treatment. The sum is more than what my husband, a labourer, can afford."

For 10-year-old Deepu, a native of Kollam, the `aunties' who visit the RCC every day bring books to him to pore over. As he sees them enter the paediatric ward, he rushes to ask, "Auntie, have you got any magazines or books for me?"

"The children here forget their discomfort, at least temporarily, when they get together for functions or parties that are organised here," says Beena from Kottayam, whose daughter is undergoing treatment for leukaemia.

Many children's parents have been at the RCC for more than a month.

"I understood the plight of cancer patients when my brother-in-law was brought to the RCC for treatment," says Shantha Jose, whose decision to do voluntary work led to the formation of `Ashraya'."Things were worse for the patients from distant places in the State. The emotional, financial and physical burden takes a heavy toll on the family. Dr. Paul, at the RCC, suggested that some of us get together to do voluntary work, as was being done abroad," she recalls.

This struck a chord with Shantha and she mobilised her friends and neighbours, and `Ashraya' was born. She says that the group received training, support and encouragement from the doctors, staff and the former director of the RCC, M. Krishnan Nair.

Says Dr. Jayaprakash Madhavan, superintendent of the RCC, "The volunteers are doing good work. The emotional support they provide cannot be discounted. In fact, more volunteers should come forward to support this endeavour. Volunteers can help a great deal in spreading awareness about cancer, particularly about the preventive measures and early detection of cancer. Moreover, through the efforts of `Ashraya,' the RCC received medical equipment worth lakhs, from a philanthropic organisation in the U.S."

`Ashraya's work is not confined to the RCC.

Shanta Balakrishnan, another founder member, says, "When Vijayan, a terminally ill cancer patient from Nedumangad, passed away, our members collected money and set up a small shop for his wife and four-year-old daughter. We were delighted when she donated Rs. 50 from her profits to the organisation."

The success stories are many. Depending on the need of the patients or the family, the members donate clothes; reading material and offer financial support. They have even conducted the marriages of some of the children of cancer patients.

For many of those afflicted with cancer, the financial help given by the organisation is a lifeline that holds the promise of cure. The small desk that is manned by a volunteer is a beehive of activity, as scores of patients throng the place for help.

Dr. R. Manjula, Resident Medical Officer at the Palliative Care Unit, helps the volunteers sort out the genuine cases and the most needy, from the pile of applications that they receive.

"For instance, a family can get food from the canteen for a week for Rs. 300. Some of the patients here cannot afford that and so we pay the bills. For some, it is the medicines. We try to do our best," says Shantha Jose.

She, however, admits, "We need more volunteers. Most of us are housewives in our Fifties and hence, we have problems of our own. At times, we find ourselves short of people. We require at least 10 to 12 volunteers every day."

Unfazed by the difficulties and shortcomings, the volunteers work tirelessly to make `Ashraya' a sanctuary for those in need.

SARASWATHY NAGARAJAN

Photo: C. Ratheesh Kumar

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