Monthly Archives: August 2012

We Will Miss You Ma

On 9th August 2012, Mrs. Shwasti Chaudhuri, a founding board member of Calcutta Kids Trust, passed away. An unsung hero in almost every road she travelled, Mrs. Chaudhuri played a key background role in the establishment and ongoing success of Calcutta Kids. I wish to use this week’s blog to write about this extraordinary woman and the impact she had on my life.

In 2002, during a 9 month stay in Kolkata, I was introduced to Santanu and Shwasti Chaudhuri by dear friends of Calcutta Kids, Charlie and Cordie Puttkammer. Santanu was a retired business man and a former board member of Shaw Wallace; Shwasti had a small handmade paper factory and managed their beautiful home—one of the last standing British bungalows on Ballygunge Circular Road.

The Chaudhuris and I became enamored with each other. They were very supportive of the work I was then doing with the Ashalayam Mobile Health Clinic, but they realized quickly that the road I was headed down – non-stop work with the neediest kids in the slums – was a dangerous one—one that might very well lead to burnout. The Chaudhuris, worldly people who knew how hard life in Kolkata could be for foreigners, had seen others push too hard and then give up in desperation. And they made it their mission not to let this happen. They ‘adopted’ me and on a weekly basis would invite me to join them for dinner at one of the old British clubs of Kolkata—the Bengal Club, the Calcutta Club, the Saturday Club, or their home which is almost as big and fancy as a dinner club.

Noah and “Ma” distributing sweaters to destitute children in the winter of 2004 in honor of Fred Rogers.

The generosity showered upon me by the Chaudhuris was overwhelming, and along with marvelous conversations and delicious food and the best soufflé I’d ever tasted, I was introduced to and welcomed into a new Kolkata—a Kolkata far different than that of Mother Teresa’s work and the street children with whom I worked every day. If it was possible to fall deeper in love with Kolkata than I already had, it happened through the Chaudhuris.

My relationship with the Chaudhuris became that of a surrogate son. I soon began calling Mr. Chaudhuri “Baba” and Mrs. Chaudhuri, “Ma”. In 2003, when I returned to Kolkata for another long period of time, Ma and Baba invited me to live with them, and I continued to live there whenever I was in Kolkata until 2008.

While living with the Chaudhuris, Ma and I would regularly have long conversations. Ma would listen to me talk about my successes and failures working with the poor of Kolkata; she would listen to my frustrations; she would give guidance, but more often, she would just listen or re-direct my thinking if I was badly off the mark. Ma never told me what to do unless I specifically asked. She told me that the only way I was going to survive in Kolkata is if I made mistakes and learned from them. Ma was a great listener and someone I could always bounce ideas off.

When I was sick from dysentery or viral fever, Ma nursed me. When the Chaudhuris son Kaushik returned from America to live with them (I had been staying in Kaushik’s bedroom) Ma gave me her room so that I could stay close to the family; when I was far away from home and I lost two grandparents in just one month, Ma dried my tears. My own dear mother, Louise, was very close to Ma and they often holidayed together in the hills.

In 2005 when Calcutta Kids opened an office in Kolkata, Ma and Baba formed the Calcutta Kids Trust with an initial sizable donation. Ma and Baba were supportive of the Trust, but in a hands-off way. They knew that Calcutta Kids was my baby and they gave it and me the freedom we needed to grow. They often warned about potential problems; they often gave their opinions on ideas I would have, but they let me guide the Trust with their support. Board meetings were always held at their home and Ma would make sure that the trustees were well fed with singharas, an array of sandesh, pakoras and Darjeeling tea.

It’s because of Ma and Baba that I was able to survive as long as I have in Kolkata; it’s because of their love and support and friendship; it’s because they welcomed me into their home; it’s because they gave me the comfort I needed to juxtapose with my troubling days; it’s because they protected me while allowing me to make the mistakes which would eventually make Calcutta Kids what it is today.

In many ways, my life is what it is today because of Ma and Baba. Without Ma and Baba I certainly wouldn’t have survived this long in Kolkata and Calcutta Kids would likely not exist. And without my being in Kolkata, I never would have met Evangeline—my life partner.

This photo was taken at Noah and Evangeline’s wedding in India on January 14th 2012. Evangeline is sitting on Baba’s lap, and Noah is standing between his mother Louise, and his Ma, Shwasti.

Even after moving out of their home, I remained a son of the house. Ma and I spoke on the phone nearly every day. And oh how I will miss that daily phone call. But even more than the phone calls I will miss the one-on-one conversations we had over tea lounging on the bed; I’ll miss Ma’s infectious smile; and I’ll miss her scolding me for chewing on toothpicks and pulling hairs from my head when I am anxious.

Before Ma died, she told her family that I was like a son to her. The Chaudhuri family gave me the honor of carrying Ma’s body from the house to the hearse, and they asked me to participate in the Hindu rituals which a son performs for his mother. I’m deeply grateful to the family for giving me that honor.

Calcutta Kids will be forever in debt to Ma for all her love and support and to honor Ma’s life, we will continue to provide the best possible care to the pregnant women and children of Fakir Bagan.–Noah Levinson

The Story of Puja Yadav

I will never forget the image of Puja on that first day of YCHING (Young Child Nutrition Group) in April 2011: Her mother Rinku set her down on the ground, and she took off, a whirlwind of 11 month old energy, tottering on slightly bowed legs, eyes bright with promise, grinning ear to ear. She was a radiant child.

Puja in April 2011

Fast forward to January 2012: Puja’s family came back to Fakir Bagan after a 10 month stay in the village during which time Rinku delivered her fourth child, Prince. Rinku had conceived again when Puja was just 9 months old, and the family–which included Rinku, her husband, Puja’s older brother and sister, and Puja–decided to return to the village for the pregnancy and delivery and to be close to extended family at home. The next time we saw Puja in January, we were shocked to see her condition–gone was the sunny, energetic girl we knew a year back. The new Puja was sullen, lethargic, and irritable. There was a clear reason: after taking her measurements we found that Puja had dropped off her growth curve, plummeting from -2.2 in weight for age z-score (WAZ) in April 2011 to -3.6 WAZ in January 2012. She was severely underweight and obviously suffering from infection. We counseled her mother and urged her to bring Puja in for examination and treatment, but with the new baby, plus Puja and her older siblings, Rinku was overwhelmed and decided to return to the village before we could intervene.

The family reappeared in Fakir Bagan in June 2012 and we were dismayed to see that Puja, now at 27 months, had taken a turn for the worse.  She was now -4.8 WAZ, very severely underweight, and also severely wasted at -3.03 weight for height z-score (WHZ). She suffered from both chronic and acute malnutrition- she was very weak, had raspy, labored breathing, a swollen abdomen, and chronic fever. She urgently needed help. We were sure she would not survive if she continued on this downward spiral.

Puja in June 2012

The Calcutta Kids doctor examined Puja and we quickly put together a treatment plan for Puja. First, we referred and accompanied her to Hope Hospital in Kolkata where she could be seen by a specialist pediatrician. The pediatrician diagnosed her with severe protein energy malnutrition (PEM), severe anemia, and chronic infection, and suspected that she had TB. He ordered a battery of tests and we sent Puja to the local DOTS (Directly Observed Therapy) center for TB screening. Though her Mantoux test was negative, her chest x-ray showed severe infection in the lung.

In consultation with the Hope pediatrician, Puja is now taking a 3 month course of level I anti-tuberculosis drug for her lung infection and therapeutic micronutrient supplements. Rinku brings her to the Calcutta Kids clinic everyday for an energy and protein dense, nutritious meal. Our health workers visit her home regularly for follow up and counseling on care, hygiene, and nutrition with the family.

Puja and her mother Rinku, July 2012

Puja Yadav, like all our children at Calcutta Kids, was never just a ‘case’ to be managed. She was a child at risk, a child trying desperately to survive the odds around her–a life that would not only be lost, but discounted, if someone did not intervene. Our entire team rallied together with Puja’s family.  We had intense discussions, we shed a few tears, and we cheered when Puja started gaining weight, slowly but surely; started smiling again; and even laughing. We are very happy to report that Puja has started to blossom again, and is slowly starting to resemble the girl we met over a year ago. In two months, she gained 1.5 kg, and shot up from -4.8 WAZ to -3.5 WAZ. She has improved from severe wasting (-3.03 WHZ) to mild wasting (-1.38 WHZ), a remarkable turnaround. And all of this has happened with home-based care, which is much harder to adhere to and manage than institutionalized rehabilitation, an option that the family would not consider, because it would mean leaving the other children at home without a full-time caregiver.

Like Puja, the family has started to change as well. Initially, both father and mother did not want to take Puja to the DOTS center three days a week for medication. They feared Puja would be labeled as a TB patient and ostracized by their neighbors. Calcutta Kids counseled them and gave them confidence to explain to their neighbors why they sought treatment for Puja. The community around them has also seen the changes in Puja and supports the family’s actions. Furthermore, as Puja’s health has improved, her younger brother Prince has also made remarkable strides. He, too, had been severely underweight when they came back from the village in June 2012. In the past 2 months, Prince moved up to the moderate category, gaining 1.2 kg, going from -3.47 to -2.4 in z-score (WAZ). We believe that this is another testament to change that has occurred in the family and especially in Rinku, who now seems less burdened, more confident, and proud of her children. When she brings Puja to the clinic she is delighted when Puja calls our health workers ‘amar didi’ (my elder sisters) and when Puja holds her hands to us in ‘namashkar.’

Puja now–August 2012

Puja is a true fighter. She is still the vibrant spirit who caught our attention long ago. She and her family just needed some extra attention. We at Calcutta Kids feel privileged that we were able to provide that additional help. We are committed to making sure that Puja remains on this trajectory of growth and nutrition, a critical foundation for a healthy and productive future. –Danya Sarkar

Puja’s Weight for Age Z score.
(Ideal is a straight line at 0)

Puja’s Weight for Height Z score.
(Ideal is a straight line at 0)

Milena Commits Another $50K to CK

During my first summer in Kolkata in 2000 while working at Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying Destitutes I met Milena Kotys, a social worker from New Jersey. Milena has remained a dear personal friend and is also a close friend to Calcutta Kids. In 2007, Milena’s father Wasyl passed away and a year later to honor her father, Milena started the Kotys Memorial Fund—a permanent endowment in the name of Calcutta Kids to fund our weekly health camp. In 2008, the weekly health camp cost around $5,000 per year to run. And safe investment returns in India are around 10% so Milena set a goal to raise $50,000.

Three years later, at a Kotys Memorial Fund fundraiser hosted by Ginny and Ravi Akhoury, I shared the following toast with Milena:

“Milena: Congratulations! You have done it. You’ve delivered on your promise to raise $50,000 for the Calcutta Kids endowment in honor of your dad. Fundraising is not easy and you should be incredibly proud. I feel so fortunate to have had you as a partner in raising funds for Calcutta Kids—and even though the goal has been met and your commitment has been fulfilled—I hope your assistance will continue. It’s been beautiful watching you through this process as every solicitation you send out; every phone call you make; every event you plan is done with such love, such intentionality; because you treat each of these acts as a tribute of love to your dad. I’m sure Wasyl is among us right now with a big smile on his face—the smile surely represents pride in what you have accomplished; and gratitude for the way you and your family have chosen to honor his life. On behalf of the many women and children in Fakir Bagan who receive free life-saving services because of your work.”

Between the establishment of the Fund and 2011, the weekly health camp turned into an outpatient daily clinic with a full time female doctor. The costs therefore increased, but the interest from the Kotys Memorial Fund has substantially helped in covering the operating expenses of the clinic.

Milena is currently in Kolkata for a few weeks and she’s been spending a lot of time at Calcutta Kids. Yesterday, she shared some observations with us about the clinic which I have paraphrased below:

Milena Kotys with members of the Calcutta Kids team (August 2012).

“The weekly health camp has been turned into a high quality primary health clinic open five days a week. It makes me so happy that more patients can be seen more frequently. The weekly health camp was in a dingy room in the slum and now it’s in a clean, spacious, well-organized space with privacy for all patients; food and drinks are provided as well as all necessary medicines and yet there is still no charge to the patients and their families. There is even a security guard who keeps the clinic safe and welcomes the patients. Doctor Mukherjee is lovely and the staff is professional and kind. And the data system is just awesome. It’s wonderful to see the digital growth charts marking the progress of each child.”

Milena also sang the praises of the community health workers knowing that none of the work we do is possible without them.

Pleased with what Calcutta Kids has been able to do with the money she raised in honor of her father, Milena announced that over the next few years, she will raise another $50,000 for the Calcutta Kids endowment—again in honor of her father Wasyl.

All of us at Calcutta Kids are deeply moved by Milena’s generosity, and grateful for her commitment to the mothers and children we hold so dear. Thanks Milena. –Noah Levinson