On April 9th, 2009, I leaned against a wall and watched a man die only a few feet in front of me. This man had been lying down in a cheap metal bed, where he had spent the past 15 minutes shaking violently while a nurse tried to feed him some pills. But it was not until one of the volunteers – a middle-aged American fellow who claimed to be an Emergency Medical Technician back home - was summoned and proceeded to haphazardly inject this man with medicine that he finally closed his eyes for good.
I stood there in shock, not because I had witnessed a death, but because I had witnessed this volunteer inject this poor man several times, jabbing into his arm with careless force while appearing to have no idea how to find his vein. In addition, there was a huge air bubble in that syringe and even though the chances are low that such a bubble can be fatal, I’m quite certain that the bubble should not have been injected along with the medication. Either way, all I do know is that this man was dead less than a minute after the syringe was pulled out of his arm.
At this point, the volunteer packed up his small bag and walked away, treating the situation as if he had just tried to fix a leaky toilet. And within seconds, the religious sisters that ran the building quickly returned to their duties, as did the other volunteers around me.
I, on the other hand, ran outside into the sticky Calcutta air. And minutes later I took a seat at a rickety wooden table inside of a back alley chai shop, where I spent the following hour staring at the wall, unable to decide whether or not to continue my volunteer work.
A LONG-AWAITED OPPORTUNITY
For years I had wanted to spend some time volunteering in Calcutta and when I finally managed to work it into my schedule, I showed up at an orientation for Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity and immediately signed up for a two-month commitment. Upon signing up, every volunteer is asked to choose which of the nine homes within the organization that they wish to work at and without hesitation I chose the Nirmal Hriday Home for the Destitute and the Dying (aka Kalighat).
The very next day, I began spending four hours each morning and three hours every afternoon feeding and bathing the 50 dying men that called Kalighat home. In addition, I cleaned their dishes, did their laundry by hand, brought them their pills and even gave arm and leg massages to those who were in desperate need of some relief from their constant pain.
On any given day there were approximately 15 of us volunteers at Kalighat and during my first two weeks, the atmosphere was such that I looked forward to every day of work. My favorite moments involved those that took place once the laundry was hung out to dry on the rooftop, once the dishes were all cleaned and we had time to sit down and chat with the residents.
Some of the residents were quite alert and eager to speak of their lives, such as one 75 year old man who spent many afternoons talking to me about his frequent trips to Europe as the vice-president of a major Indian company. Sadly, after being laid off from his position, and after his wife left him, he lost all of his money in a business deal. To make things worse, doctors soon discovered a massive tumor in his stomach. After initial treatments drained his bank account, this man ended up living on the streets of Calcutta until he was brought to Kalighat by an organization that roams the city in search of people in dire need of assistance. By the time I arrived, he had been in his bed, where all of these men remain 23 hours per day, for two years already and the tumor in his stomach was the size of a basketball.
Yet despite his situation, he always smiled brightly when I approached him which in turn delivered a form of happiness into my life that I will forever be thankful for.
However, even with these moments of communication, whether verbal, or as was most often the case, non-verbal, the air inside of Kalighat was admittedly quite heavy. Rarely a day passed without at least one resident passing away, right there in the one large dormitory, for all of us volunteers and other residents to witness. And when you’re surrounded by so much death, it is nearly impossible to remain unaffected. Much of my time, both inside and outside of Kalighat during those days, was spent contemplating this difficult subject.
Before long, I noticed that there were typically two different types of volunteers working at Kalighat. Most were short-term volunteers, those who stayed for 4 or 5 days or maybe a week. These volunteers brought with them an abundance of positive energy that I feel played an important role in bringing much-needed comfort to many of the residents while at the same time making it easier for other volunteers to handle all of the pain and suffering around us.
And then there were the handful of long-term volunteers, those who had been at Kalighat for 6 months or more. Quite surprisingly, it was these volunteers that repeatedly forced me to question the benefits of my commitment and the benefits of Kalighat as a whole.
It seemed that as time dragged on for these long-term volunteers, all of the sloshing around in food scraps, vomit and excrement, while being constantly surrounded by tumors, open wounds and horrendous diseases, led them to forget why they had chosen to volunteer in the first place.
As an example, I clearly remember one morning when I was sitting next to an impossibly thin seventy-year old man (I later found out he weighed 29 kg), trying to gently convince him to take his pills. Each time I moved the cup of pills closer to his mouth, he would turn his head away from me and close his eyes. After carrying on like this for several minutes, one of the long-term volunteers approached me and before I could say a word, he had yanked the pills out of my hand, grabbed this man’s jaw with unnecessary force, pried open his mouth and shoved the pills inside. I watched in shock as the tears started to form in the eyes of this frail, dying man while the volunteer handed me the empty cup and said, “This is how we do it” before storming off.
When it was time to bathe the residents each day, I always made sure I helped them move from their beds to the shower room as carefully as I could. But the long-term volunteers would operate as if we were running a factory, quickly lifting up residents, throwing their skeletal, naked bodies over their shoulders and practically slamming them down on the benches inside the shower room. There was no regard at all for the actual well-being of the person.
In fact, most of the time it seemed that these volunteers had forgotten that they were dealing with people at all. They treated the residents as objects, no different than a beat up old car unworthy of even an oil change. The goal was not to care for the residents as best they could, but to finish their daily duties as quickly as possible. And if that meant throwing someone over your shoulder and jamming pills down their throat, then so be it.
There were actually several occasions when I found myself in the midst of a mild argument with a long-term volunteer. For example, I recall the day that one of them reprimanded me because I was taking too long to scrub down one of the residents, a young man who was suffering from kidney cancer. The volunteer just ripped the sponge out of my hand, immediately threw a bucket of water on this man’s face and scrubbed his body harder than you would scrub your stove top.
Unable to allow this to continue, I asked the volunteer to remember that we were working with actual human beings. His immediate reply was that my statement was irrelevant because it should be our goal to finish bathing all of the residents before the 10:30am tea break. I told him I disagreed, grabbed the sponge once again and demanded that he leave the room. He got up, left the room and minutes later came back with another resident whom he proceeded to bathe in his rough and unacceptable manner.
WHY I WALKED AWAY
I remained at Kalighat for six of the eight weeks I had originally signed up for, choosing to end my time due to a combination of a strong fever and probably more realistically, my frustration with the long-term volunteers.
It was definitely difficult for me to leave the residents behind when I walked out on my final day, especially knowing full well that I had more to give. But in reality, the effect of watching some of the most helpless human beings on the planet be treated worse than the cockroaches crawling under their beds had begun to take its toll on my sanity.
As for the Missionaries of Charity, there’s a great deal of debate about the services they provide. While they undoubtedly do a remarkable amount of good in dozens of countries around the world, some claim it to be unacceptable that despite having millions of dollars in funding, this organization continues to provide barely adequate facilities and substandard medical attention for the people they care for. But I don’t really want to join that debate right now because I fully believe that the attitude and efforts of the volunteers, no matter what the surrounding conditions may be, defines the benefits that those in need ultimately receive.
And it doesn’t take much to bring some relief to the most helpless individuals. A little respect and compassion will work wonders which is why I was so surprised by the behavior of some of the volunteers at Kalighat.
Have you volunteered in Calcutta or somewhere else? How was your experience?