Peggy Keener: Passage to India

Published 6:38 pm Friday, May 12, 2023

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In 1988, when our daughter, Erin, was a student at Oxford University in England, she was given a fellowship to study for a year anywhere in the world. She chose India. Keep in mind that Erin, who was born in Tokyo, had already lived in a least a dozen countries. She was neither naive nor biased as she was a well molded child of the world. And yet, the world of India was like nothing she had ever encountered.

Erin began by volunteering at Asha Daan, Mother Teresa’s mission in Bombay. As she walked there every morning, she passed through a sidewalk slum where lean-to’s were created from squalid burlap bags slung over bamboo poles—homes for extended families. Extreme poverty, steamy filth and frenzied human activity permeated every corner of the city.

The primary function of Asha Daan was to provide food, shelter and medical care. Four large wards housed 250 residents and was run by 25 Catholic nuns. Erin’s job was to work with psychotic, homeless and sick women, as well as severely retarded and/or handicapped children. Many were unable to respond. Her duties included cutting hair, changing soiled clothes, moving atrophied limbs, playing, singing and feeding the patients.

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Erin’s privileged upbringing had in no way prepared her for this emotional challenge. On her first day a sister plopped a two-year-old girl onto her lap, telling Erin the child’s name was “Pretti.” It was beyond ironic that she was called “Pretty” for she was anything but. Born without a face, Pretti had depressions for eyes, two openings for a nose and mouth, six fingers, and patches of scalp hair on her arms.

A whole range of emotions flooded over Erin as she sang and played for that introductory hour. It was her first true recognition of the ever present universal need for love and joy in all of us, despite our limitations. In a place like Asha Daan, the only mode of communication was often by touch. Unexpectedly, what Erin learned from Pretti was just how extraordinarily important touch also meant to her.

A few months later, Erin moved on to Calcutta. Be assured that she was not staying in comfy hotels, but rather in grubby hostels where her budget was a personal pledge of 50 cents a day. Her mission was to absorb the culture, blend in and do what little she could to help wherever she was needed.

Calcutta proved to be rich in contrasts between the remains of the extravagant British Rajera and the over-crowded, teeming, impoverished millions. There Erin volunteered to work with a British physician who for the previous five years had been treating the destitute.

The “clinic” consisted of a portion of a sidewalk with a “wall” made from a tarp propped over some trunks, and large garbage bags containing donated medicine, needles, dressings, milk powder, disinfectants, soap, clothing and other needed supplies. It had to be set up and taken down each day.

With bumper-to-bumper traffic whirling clouds of dust only feet away, Erin treated everything from TB, gonorrhea, syphilis, polio, elephantiasis, extreme burns, leprosy, advanced cancerous masses and accidental amputations caused by trains where the homeless slept along the tracks.

Despite the heartbreak of it all, Erin thrived upon the good will and fellowship between the volunteers and the very afflicted folks who patiently lined up along the sidewalk each morning well before sunrise. Every last one of the ill and wounded demonstrated forbearing stoicism, so grateful were they for the care. No one, including the children, complained despite the terrible pain they were enduring.

From Calcutta, Erin moved on to New Delhi where the daily temperatures climbed to 117 degrees, ending up in a Tibetan monastery nestled in the Indian Himalayas. While strolling there down a very narrow village road that was completely boxed in on both sides by high mud walls, she looked up to see a raging water buffalo storming towards her. With virtually no place to go to avoid it, she flattened herself up against the wall as best she could.

It was not nearly enough. The bull hit her resulting in a fractured wrist. Some kindly people took her to the local village hospital. It was there that Erin, now a patient herself in a Third World facility, truly realized the blaring void of decent medical care. After this experience, Erin began seriously considering medicine as a career.

Glen and I, in far off Tokyo, knew nothing of Erin’s life in India. Later she told me that whenever the Indians met her for the first time, they invariably asked, “Where is your mother?” as they were unable to fathom how and why any girl would be so far from home and all alone.

In the middle of one Tokyo night, I answered a ringing phone. The caller told me he was from Emory Medical School in Atlanta and was looking for Erin. I explained that she was in India, but had no idea where. The man went on to say that Emory wanted to give Erin a 100% medical scholarship, only one of its kind given each year. I was surprised as Erin had not indicated to me that she was interested in a medical career. An award ceremony was planned in only a few days time and they wanted Erin to be there.

I explained that my hands were tied. I could not get in touch with Erin and I had no idea when she would ever call us. The only thing to do was take down the information and if Erin did call, I would relay the message. I hung up not knowing if I would hear from my daughter in days or even in weeks.

Fortuitously, the very next day Erin called. It was one of only several calls she made while in India. She was in a tiny village where using the one telephone involved a long wait in a very slow line. Our time was very short. I told her about Emory. There was a long pause and then she declared, “I can’t go!” I asked why and she explained that for the price of round trip ticket to Atlanta and back to India, she could feed everyone in the village. It was out of the question for that much money to be spent on her. And besides, she didn’t even know if she wanted to be a doctor. I told her I understood, but suggested that she think about it, knowing it was a really sudden, really tough decision. I gave her the contact information and we hung up.

A couple days later, with her decision made, she called from Atlanta, arriving there wearing only long gauze pants, a long gauze shirt and a very grubby pair of Birkenstocks. A friend offered her a bed and a dressy outfit for the award ceremony. When it was over, she returned to India.

And now I digress to interject a story: a very important story. One day while she was studying at Oxford, Erin decided to take the train to Cambridge. Seated there, she looked up to see a Japanese man coming down the aisle. As he passed her, she greeted him in Japanese. Naturally he was surprised and not a little delighted. They chatted briefly and he went on his way, the interlude lasting only a few brief moments.

Now, segue back to India. Toward the end of her six month stay in India, Erin realized she was infected with amoeba. She knew this was a potentially serious condition and that she needed prompt medical attention. She phoned saying she would arrive in Japan the next day and asked me to make a doctor’s appointment.

By chance I had become good friends with several Japanese physicians. I called one and asked that he make an appointment. It was apparent upon her arrival that Erin was really ill. She was terribly thin and had only a toothbrush and the same gauze outfit she had worn some week’s prior to Atlanta. No part of her outfit revealed more the life she was leading in India than those Birkenstocks. They were simply dreadful.

The next morning we were in the waiting room of the local university hospital. Before long a man walked up to us and in a very cheerful voice said, “Hello, Erin! It’s so nice to see you again!” I looked at Erin in bewilderment. Who was this man?

And now you’re going to hear the rest of the story. That man, the one we didn’t know, turned out to be a doctor. An internist. And it was he who brought Erin back to health. Yes, he was the Japanese man on the train. And yes again, Erin did become a physician.