Indian Institute for Mother and Child: Steph Collins on her 33 days in India

Alex and I playing with some of the kids on an overnight trip to a rural village outside Kolkata

I’ve been back in Australia for just over 3 weeks now and I am still struggling to find the perfect response to encapsulate my month at IIMC. After spending 33 days living in India – working 6 days a week at the medical clinics, treating hundreds of patients, teaching basic healthcare to women, singing countless (and embarrassing) renditions of the Australian anthem to school children, dancing at the annual children’s festival, participating in micro-credit banks and learning to give our first injections – where does one begin? I could spend hours talking about all the stories and experiences we had in India – some amazing and some incredibly sad – but all I can say is it is something you HAVE to do at some stage in your life.

I’ll start with IIMC – the Institute for Indian Mother and Child. It’s a non-governmental organisation based in the city of Kolkata in West Bengal of India. The founder of the organisation is Dr. Sujit Brahmochary – a paediatrician – who started the project with his wife Barnali in 1989. About 40% of people in India live below the poverty line – that’s less than $1 per day. The poverty levels in India are phenomenal, you hear the stats but seeing them is a whole other level.

Initially the project was aimed at providing medical treatment to the poor, but when the problem is as extensive as it is the focus of the project shifted to the causes of the problem – poor nutrition, poor education and poor economical means. How can medicine help when one can’t even read the prescription? More than 50% of the population is illiterate.

So IIMC has grown to include an education and sponsorship program. It has opened up its own primary and secondary schools, and began the sponsorship program for children. Currently there are 2500 children being sponsored from 15 different countries (including the 6 sponsor children we alone sponsored in January).

School girls at an IIMC primary school

School girls at an IIMC primary school

Visiting my sponsor child Piu and her family

Visiting my sponsor child, Piu, and her family

In addition IIMC began the empowerment program. This part of the project aims to improve the conditions of women, which are often dire. Many have had troublesome pasts and this part seeks to provide education, financial support and social and cultural development.

One of the most successful aspects of the project is the micro-credit program. You learn quickly that empowering people is much more effective than just treating them. This project is about teaching women basic skills in how to manage money. This then grows into dispensing small bank loans and teaching basic skills such as saving and making repayments – which grows into the bank loans getting big enough for them to start their own business. It’s a great initiative and it empowers the women to gain more respect within their marriages, to have a greater role in society as well as improving their lives socially with weekly group meetings. Surprisingly I found this most inspiring – these women are living below the poverty line and although it’s only 20 cents per week they are saving – it’s at least 1/5 of their weekly income.

So about 20 volunteers go over to IIMC every month from all over the world. Australians tend to go over only in December and January due to our holiday periods. We were very lucky to have a great group of people – mostly Australians, but also some Italians, a German and a New Zealander. Trust me when I say you will leave India knowing the other volunteers VERY well.

January 2015 volunteers

January 2015 volunteers

Your day will basically start at 9.30am (sometimes earlier) – you travel to the indoor clinic (IIMC head office) and from there travel to an outdoor clinic by car/bus where you give medical treatment – blood pressure, injections and wound dressing. You will be very good at doing blood pressure by the end of the month – and by good I mean non-stop noise and a broken cuff will not interfere with your ability to get a reading. You will also gain confidence in injections. You may start with shaky hands and a lot of uncertainty, but trust me that will soon disappear within a few days. You get great patient interaction too – you learn to communicate with people even though there is a massive language and cultural barrier, which I think is one of the most valuable skills to have.

After the outdoor clinics you then have the chance to participate in all the other projects of IIMC. There is lots to do, and lots of kids to play with! You can get involved in all the various projects at your own leisure. There are a few rural trips to go on too – rural India is stunning (and by rural it’s actually only 60-70km out of Kolkata – but 3 hours by car).

India is crazy, but it’s a beautiful place with many beautiful people. The positivity that exists amongst the chaos is inspiring. It can be a tough month – you’re exposed to a problem that is so far beyond you that many can struggle to comprehend it. But you learn to accept that although you may feel your help is minor, the positivity of you being there is significant enough. Whether you’re a medical student or not, I encourage you to give a month of your time to a project such as IIMC, you will leave seeing the world with a different perspective.

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