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Indian Surgeon Helping Polio Patients Take First Steps

  • Aru Pande

India is getting close to marking its third year without a new recorded polio case, setting the stage for the country to be officially declared polio-free in January. While much has been done to immunize infants against the disease, millions of people are living with polio, unable to live a normal life.

But one surgeon is working to change that.

At one of New Delhi’s oldest hospitals, in the only designated polio ward in all of India, patients like Abida Khatoon have only one goal.

“I can stand and walk," Khatoon said. "I just need a little help, and soon I won’t need that as well. Soon, I will be able to walk on my own.”

It took two months of surgery and rehabilitation at St. Stephen’s Hospital for Khatoon to achieve her life-long dream of being able to walk.

She and other young women in this eight-bed ward credit Dr. Mathew Varghese, an orthopedic surgeon who has devoted his entire career to restoring mobility and dignity to those left crippled by the poliovirus that invades the brain and spinal cord, causing paralysis.

“All these girls have been crawling, except for this one, all the others have been crawling," Varghese said. "The other muscles are very weak. They have never had the opportunity to stand on their two feet. For the first time in their lives - like this girl is paralyzed at six months -- she has never been able to stand on her two feet.”

As India gets closer to officially being declared polio-free, the effect of the massive immunization effort can be seen in the hospital, with Varghese now mostly treating people in their early twenties as opposed to young children some two decades ago.

In 1990, New Delhi alone saw 3,000 new polio cases. Now that number is zero.The trend is reflected here at this polio ward, where at its peak it saw 600 patients annually. Now that number is down to fewer than 200.

Rotary International has been on the frontline of India’s polio eradication efforts and helps fund reconstructive surgeries at St. Stephen’s. Former Rotary President Rajendra Saboo saw the need to give polio patients a second chance at a normal life during a trip to a village in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.

“Then another child came, also crawling," said Saboo. "And I said ‘what is happening to these children?’ They seem to have been struck by polio. And the villagers said, ‘no, no, no, just forget them, they are dust.’”

But Rotary and Varghese did not forget them. Patients hear about the ward and travel to New Delhi from across India in hopes of correcting bent legs and feet. No one is turned away.

After weeks in the hospital, 19-year-old Abida Khartoon is getting ready to go home to her village in Uttar Pradesh.

“If I had only met Dr. Varghese earlier, I wouldn’t have had as much hardship in life," she said. "My hands wouldn’t be so calloused [from using them to get around]. Because of him, I am doing better," she said tearfully.

But Khartoon is not the only one brought to tears. When asked what this surgeon’s dream is -- the answer was simple.

“My dream," he asked, trying to choke back his own tears. "This ward should be empty. No polio."

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