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A Mission, Possible

May 2004
A Mission, Possible

A Mission, Possible


When a 28-year-old doctor from Atlanta left home to chase a dream right to the doorsteps of a slum land in Mumbai, perhaps even he didn't know that his dream would take such concrete shape in a year's time. Today, Dr Ashish Goyal, has achieved part of what he had set out to do, having created AVSAR, a non-profit organization that works towards providing health care to the poor.

Last summer, when Ashish Goyal, touched his parents' feet, took their blessings and said goodbye to them at Atlanta's Hartsfield airport, he had tears in his eyes. He was leaving with a mission and he wasn't sure he would return successful. Goyal had taken a year off from medical school to create an organization that would work towards providing better health care to the poorest of poor in the slums of Mumbai.

At the time, all he had was his passion, some support from friends and family, and an excruciating memory of seeing a scared, feverish pneumonia-afflicted child-laborer being brought into a health clinic by his employer during a previous visit to Mumbai. "I knew right then that I had to come back here," said Goyal.

Six months after he left Atlanta, on December 3, 2003, the young doctor opened his first public health clinic in a slum in Kurla west, a suburban wasteland in Mumbai, through Niramaya, a public health organization working in Mumbai. That day, Goyal and his small team saw 70 patients and hundreds more have flocked to them since. The health-care work has since snowballed. Goyal has been actively recruiting other medical students from the U.S. and, of late, not just doctors, but anyone with a relevant skill.

The result of all this is ?AVSAR' (literally: Opportunity), a non-profit organization committed to connecting individuals to existing non-profit organizations that are working with the underprivileged in India, especially with street children, child laborers and sweatshop employees. Last month, Avsar got recognized as a non-profit agency in the US, which means all contributions to it could be tax deductible.

"I went crazy with my recruitment efforts and sent a massive email campaign throughout the country," said Goyal, speaking to Khabar in a phone interview from Mumbai. "I didn't think I could get one volunteer per month." But recently, the young enthusiast selected five highly qualified volunteers?including medical students from Harvard and Columbia.

While Avsar initially focused its recruitment efforts on fourth-year medical students, the application process has now been expanded to include all medical students, public health students, business students, software engineers, web designers, undergraduate students, and just about anyone else interested in community service or development work. "Although the pilot program is one month long?this is about building life-long partnerships," said Goyal. He notes that people living in the U.S. have access to unbelievable resources?from their education, to medical equipment, even something as simple as excess clothing?and hopes that the initial interaction will lead to many more efforts towards giving back in some form.

On the flip side, medical students can get a unique look into tropical medicine while also gaining perspective on public health issues facing India. Those who are fluent in the local language get an opportunity to work closely with the community. For instance, an Avsar volunteer helped design an adolescent health and sex education program for young males. The organization is currently looking for a volunteer who is qualified to create a new HIV/Aids treatment and prevention program for one of its partner non-profit organizations given the alarming increase in HIV infected patients. Other volunteers have helped local grassroots organizations formulate a system of effective documentation for patient registration, patient encounter forms, medication inventory, etc, which was earlier being done by hand.

Goyal belongs to a growing group of young Indian Americans looking to build ties with their country of origin and ?give back' in some way. His parents are both long-time residents of Atlanta?his father Madan is a civil engineer with Dekalb County and also deals in real estate, and his mother Prabha is a banker with SunTrust.

Like many of his young compatriots, he went back to India every other year or so, but most of those visits revolved around seeing family. It was in 2002, when he was in his fourth year at the Medical College of Georgia, and was looking around for a clinical experience which was part of his curriculum, that he decided to home in on urban India.

That was when his brother's friend, Charu Sharma, who runs Niramaya, which works with pre-schoolers, suggested that he come and work with her. She warned him that working in the slums and getting used to the local trains would be a bit of a shocker. "I had prepared myself but I was still shocked," said Goyal. "The side of India I saw that month was very different from the India I had seen before that."

Goyal recounts an incident that has since been embedded in his consciousness. It was the 12-year-old child worker who was brought in by his employer to a local slum clinic. Although the boy had a high fever, an increased heart and respiratory rate, a noticeable cough, audible crackles in his lung fields and was shaking with the chills, when he was asked if he felt ill, he quickly denied it. Obviously, he was frightened by the presence of his employer and was clearly a victim of some sort of abuse. When Goyal told the clinic's attending physician that he thought the boy had a severe case of pneumonia and should be hospitalized immediately, the physician said he would have to find another solution if he wanted the best interest of the child. The employer would not bother with such an elaborate treatment, and the child's parents were many station stops away, and only saw the child once a year. Goyal made a note of the incident in a journal entry where he said, "Just as you start to convince yourself that your four years of medical training have prepared you for just about anything?.," this sort of thing hits you in the face.

Goyal also recounts working in slum colonies that grew around vast garbage dumping grounds, which ironically became the source of income for many of the slums' residents. He was horrified to see barefooted malnourished children wearing oversized shirts wandering around picking at the refuse, sometimes even putting things in their mouth.

While setting up the clinic, he was overwhelmed by how random local citizens came out and supported him. A businessman, who ran a small furniture factory, insisted on contributing the furniture for the clinic. For instance, he custom-made a folding table, in deference to the tiny space they were working in.

When asked what he did to unwind, to get a breather from the grim realities around him, Goyal paused and said, "I just threw myself into my work. Recently, I found a place I like to go to sometimes?it's the terrace of a building which gives me a view of the Arabian Sea. If I have a tough day, I go there and reflect, if I have a good day, I go there and relax." He is aware that he has made many mistakes along the way, especially when it came to dealing with the partner NGOs that have already been around for a while, and have their own views on issues, but hopes that he has learned from them.

One of his toughest challenges has been fund-raising, something the biology major had very little experience in?even when it came to filling out the application forms for funds. Thus far, he has paid for most of his activities out of his pocket, with a little help from grants here and there, including one most recently from The Foundation for Global Understanding, a U.S.-based organization.

Goyal will be back in Atlanta over the summer, after which he begins his residency. He will coordinate the activities of Avsar from here, but has two program directors who will be keeping up his efforts in Mumbai. His current goal is to pursue a career in internal medicine and pediatrics. But there is a strong voice inside him that suggests that he may end up back in a narrow congested bylane in Mumbai, ensuring that a little boy or girl, whose parents are too poor to care, can get access to the most basic medical care and be given a small dose of dignity.

To volunteer or contribute to AVSAR, contact Dr. Goyal at info@goyalmd.com. Avsar is a registered 501-3C Non-Profit organization. P.O. Box 870835, Stone Mountain, GA 30087.

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