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Volunteering At Mother Teresa’s Home For The Dying

Kalighat

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.

Homeless Man in India

THE VOLUNTEERS

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.

Homeless Woman in India

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?

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106 Responses to Volunteering At Mother Teresa’s Home For The Dying

  1. Ratanayano Bhikkhu says:

    If you could stay there for six months, and were able to think and behave exactly the same from the first day to the last, I would salute you.

    • Wandering Earl says:

      While that might be difficult, there should be a system in place to prevent volunteers from treating the people as anything less than people who need compassion and care.

  2. Molly says:

    I volunteered at the same place, in my twenties, when Mother Teresa was still living. There were many wonderful people there, and yes, it was a warehouse type scenario – what do you expect? There are thousands that need to be helped, with little funds or resources to provide for them.

    I find your account above – to be completely honest – not only incredibly self-serving (“I’m so special, I did everything so right and everyone else did everything so wrong and was so mean”) but really insulting in the way it is written, with little acknowledgement to the good that is being done, to the basic care being provided to many who would have none, etc.

    It is good you left, and good that you never will return.

    Molly

    • Wandering Earl says:

      Hey Molly – The main issue I have is that Mother Teresa’s organization actually has millions upon millions of dollars, yet that money is clearly not used to improve the conditions at any of the homes that offer assistance. And I would expect an organization that is supposedly built upon a foundation of compassion, to offer compassion to those in need, not to offer extremely poor conditions and staff that treat the sick, elderly and dying as if they are nothing more than useless beings of no value. I never said I’m special but I do think that volunteers throwing dying patients over their shoulders, tossing them down on concrete slabs to be hosed down every few days, forcing open their mouths to take medicine and offering very little compassion at all is not what Mother Teresa had in mind.

  3. Richard L says:

    Fantastic account, if depressing. Worked there myself some 25 years ago and some things were the same. The air bubble is a red herring, you need 20 mls of air intravenously to be a problem but the lack of compassion is a problem. One that MT recognized when she was alive and tried to reduce. People work at Kalighat for differing reasons. I remember Buddhists wanting to carry dead bodies to the morgue because it gave them good karma. Compassion could lack 20 years ago as it does now which is a reflection on the people who volunteer, and the fact that long-term volunteers are the worst (though they probably went in with great intentions and where more caring at first) shows how easily people can be emotionally burnt out. Working while burnt out is not only bad for the recipient of care but terrible for the giver when dreams of doing good become corrupted and they will know their standards are falling but accept it because no one pulls them up and others are doing the same.
    The care for these people needs to be as good as it can be, but it is given by untrained volunteers so technically it may not be good. The alternative for many of these people is to die alone on the street so this must be so much better. However, even if the care is technically poor, it must be delivered with true care and compassion; this is what MT wanted. Not to extend peoples lives but to let them die in relative comfort, with people around them who cared for them, loved them.
    I don’t know what the answer is other than to have someone who regularly visits and vets volunteers but I remember strong power circles among long-term volunteers even 25 years ago and wonder if the same is true today.
    People need to volunteer out of love and accept that if that love is being stifled by commitment or bloody minded determination to fulfill a certain time, that they should take time out without any sense of failure.
    Richard

  4. Liyan says:

    Very sad to hear your experience. To be honest, I am planning to start my volunteer from Mother House. But this article made me hesitate about my plan: which is actually expensive for me.

    I think maybe I just should not expect too much from this volunteer. Anyway, let’s see how it would be.

  5. adam mofat says:

    do they give stipends for volunteering such as 700 dollars a month or less?

  6. Joanne says:

    While I completely understand your reason for cutting short your volunteering, I find it unfortunate that those who will treat these people with kindness will be the ones to leave quickly (or not volunteer at all), and those who have no regard for their suffering are the ones who will stay for the long term. I can only suspect that the ones who treat them poorly do so to satisfy their own anger at mistreatment from the world in some way. The bully strikes out at those less fortunate to get back a little of the power he/she perceives was taken away. Not an excuse, of course, and those in charge at the missions should not be allowing or excusing such treatment. Thank you for sharing your personal account.

  7. Joy says:

    I volunteered for several months in 1990, and it was the same then. And at that time the drinking water in Nirmal Hriday wasn’t safe- sick patients would come in and get dysentery and die. The place was run as a showcase of poverty with groups of wealthy Catholics brought in to visit, and hopefully donate money, to the MoC. Where did all the money go? Certainly not on improving conditions for the patients. I saw a man screaming in agony as volunteer ‘brothers’ stripped rotten flesh from his kneecap, down to the bone- how was he supposed to recover from such a procedure. They didn’t seem to recognise him as a fellow human being. I saw a lot of things- including, sometimes even compassion.

  8. eileen hanley says:

    thank you for unbiased views .
    am hoping to combine my nursing and care career with volunteering on my planned trip to india next year ..think I can manage three weeks max ..tho if able could plan some type of sponsorship (maybe my present profit making employer) IN THE FUTURE , WITH THANKS

  9. It is sad to hear that some of the volunteers were so insensitive. I think you did the right thing telling the other volunteer to treat the patients as humans. Just because you are volunteering your time, doesn’t mean that you can treat people like shit. I really admire that you actually worked in a hospice. I am not sure I could do it. I think I would be crying all the time. I have been volunteering on and off in Cambodia for two years now, but my placements are all office based, working for an NGO (I am a communications advisor specialized in non-profit comms). I would like to do some more hands on volunteering and always thought about volunteering in Kolkata.

  10. Lydia says:

    Im so sorry to hear about your experience there and your soon departure. But Im really glad to hear about people who still care about others, sure God wanted you there for that reason, may you continue with your daily life and experience giving example to others so it is in actions from the bottom
    Of our hearts that we found joy.

  11. Jacs says:

    From my school days, I have always wanted to help older people in poor homes. Today since morning I am trying to find the right home where I can be of help 24×7, till I browsed on Mother Theresa home. Can you please advice where I can approach them. I am ready to surrender all that I have earned and go to some home to help older people / teach poor needy children.

    • Wandering Earl says:

      Hey Jacs – You just need to show up in Kolkata and visit their main office. They don’t really communicate with people online. At the same time, before you surrender all that you have learned, I highly recommend doing plenty of research of any organization you might work with.

  12. Charbel says:

    This is very disappointing to hear and also very disturbing. Im sick to hear how some volunteers have behaved. But do you ever wonder why the negatives always get the most attention and the positives don’t. Regarding the negative comments towards MT and what she has done i think its just as sick of what people have said about her. She was a remarkable women, i dont think one person here would touch hold or carry a person with leprocy disease.
    One persons unethical way of treating the needy should not be stereotyped, we should focus on the many volunteers like “Earl” that are there and commend them on what they are doing.

    Iam in india right now and dont have the time to stay for weeks but ive visited Shish Bhavan, and thanks to MT this place exists amongst many other missions.

  13. Junlei Li says:

    Thank you for the honest account of your experience. The inhumanity reminded me of some of the orphanages I had worked in, and the way long-term staff treated children with disabilities. The kind of attitude you observed in long-term volunteers seem like part of the “institutionalization syndrome” – something that shuts down and numbs the able-bodied even more than the residents.

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