- There was a 14-year-old girl who smiled even though every part of her body hurt
- There was something else that I saw during those visits: resilience, patience, strength, and hope of parents
- Treatment at the hospital is free of cost
- Doctors do not discriminate between patients
Prime Minister Imran Khan tweeted:
May 24: “I want to thank the people of Karachi for donating Rs 24 crore at the Friday fundraising Iftar for SKMTH. The generosity of my people never ceases to amaze me. InshaAllah will soon collect money to pay off our debts.”
May 20: “I want to thank the donors at the Islamabad SKMTH fundraising iftar last night where a record Rs 20 crores was raised.”
May 11: “I want to thank all the donors at SKMT fundraising iftar for breaking all previous records and donating Rs 20 crores tonight. All zakat donations are only used to give free treatment to the cancer patients.”
Last year, for a few months, I volunteered at the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Trust Hospital (SKMTH) in Lahore, the first cancer hospital in Pakistan where more than 75 percent of patients from low-income background receive free treatment. In those few months during my once or twice-weekly visits – I should have visited much more – I interacted with patients and their parents or attending family members, and in those visits I discovered a world that had always existed around me but was invisible.
A world of hope
It was the world of children with various forms of cancer, and in various stages of their treatment. From the age of a few months to early and mid-teens, one after the other, those children were a lesson in human resilience, patience and strength. There was something else that all of them had, barring the very young who were clueless about the intensity of their illness, the seriousness of their disease: All of them had hope. It was the hope of getting well, hope of getting out of the hospital soon, hope of going home, hope of resuming their normal life of being a child. Life of a child that is about being carefree, going to school, fretting about the next examination, playing with friends, fighting with siblings, demanding things and love from parents, and not being hooked to IV drips that dispense strength-giving liquids and doses of chemo.
There was a 14-year-old girl who smiled even though every part of her body hurt. She had an infection in her left leg that had spread to the point of being incurable. The doctors told her mother that an amputation was inevitable for the survival of her daughter. I talked to the girl, I talked to her mother. There was not much that could be said to a young girl who was in the danger of losing one of her legs if her infection didn’t end. There are no right words to console a teenager about the permanent loss of a limb. I talked to them, and the gratitude on the mother’s face and the faint smile of the daughter rendered me wordless. To those people, having someone to talk to and empathise with their pain was a big deal. Unlike most patients whom I saw just once, I saw the daughter and the mother thrice, and each time I left, I had one question in my mind. Why her?
In those months, I spoke with many children and their mothers and their fathers. Their gratitude silenced me, humbled me. Pain unites all of us who have children, healthy or suffering, all who simply care.
Tiny like a question mark in a white, drab bed was a 10-month-old baby, his arm, fragile, connected to IV drips, his hand, small, almost covered with a cannula. Asleep, he seemed to be smiling, safe from the pain of medicines for the huge disease he had and had no idea about. His parents, young and tired, were waiting for the day when their baby would be fully cured. As a parent you are prepared to see your child go through fever or cough or cold, but there is nothing in the how-to-be-a-good-parent books on how to deal with the pain of a child who has cancer.
The eight-year-old was playing a game on his father’s phone, his blue eyes crinkling into a smile that was indescribably beautiful. When I tried to talk to him, he didn’t say anything, but he smiled. His father also didn’t understand much that I said. He was in Lahore from Afghanistan for the treatment of his child, and there were not many people who understood what he said. One of the child’s legs had been amputated, and going to the other side of the room, I cried. On the hospital table next to the sofa on which the father sat and slept were a pair of child slippers. His child did not need those slippers any more.
One day I chatted with a 17-year-old from Karachi who had lost a body part to cancer and had big plans for his future. He had discontinued his studies, but a bright smile deepening his eagerness to become part of his family’s clothing business, he had nothing but optimism about his life.
Almost every child I met was hairless, and almost all of them had a scarf or a cap covering their head. Almost all of them were self-conscious about that. And almost all of them had a smile as they talked about it.
Some of the children were silent. Some would only speak to their family members. Some cried often. Some lay still. Some watched cartoons on televisions perched high on the front wall. Some drew pictures. Some coloured those pictures. Some played with toys. All of them were in pain. Most of them smiled. All of them were taken care of by their praying parents and attentive attending staff members.
There was something else that I saw during those visits: resilience, patience, strength, and hope of parents, grandparents, siblings and relatives of young cancer patients. For a parent to see a child in pain is something that is hard to describe. For a parent of a cancer patient, it is a whole new phenomenon. Each time I left the SKMTH, there lingered a deep sense of sadness, but something else always dominated it: awe and respect for both children and parents. Each visit was a recalibration of perspective on life.
A story of care
Every week, I visited rooms, fully equipped like those in an expensive private hospital. Each one had two beds partitioned with a curtain. On each bed was a child with a different form of cancer. On each sofa, at a little distance, or sitting on the side on bed, and at times, lying on one side of the bed with the child, was a mother, a father, a grandparent, an aunt, an uncle, a sibling. In my limited time with them, I asked about how they learnt what was wrong with their child, many stages of treatment, how they reached SKMTH, prognosis after treatment, and behaviour of doctors and staff of SKMTH. I also silently observed the conduct of the SKMTH staff. There was much that I learned about the SKMTH that was beyond the advertisements for donations, and literature about SKMTH’s past and present work and milestones.
Every parent that I met at the SKMTH during my many visits before and after the 2018 elections had one story to tell: excellence of treatment that was free of cost, good behaviour of doctors that worked on non-discrimination between patients as per their material status, and 24-hour staff attention.
The other noteworthy thing that I mentioned to many people after my visits to the hospital was that many of the patients at the SKMTH Lahore are from the erstwhile FATA, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan, Sindh, and even Afghanistan. To have a cancer hospital in Karachi, Peshawar, and one eventually in Quetta, would be of tremendous service to thousands of people of those regions who do not have the resources to travel to Lahore for cancer treatment. SKMTH Lahore was made with and is run on mainly donations. That is how the other SKMTH will be operational too. That is why the continued support for the SKMTH is not merely an act of personal help, charity and kindness, it is also a collective and national service.
And that is why those three tweets of Prime Minister Khan in the last few weeks made me write.
Prime Minister Khan, as he looks for ways to salvage the broken Pakistan that his government has inherited, has not forgotten about the pain of those who, along with the memory of his mother, motivated him to build a state-of-the-art cancer hospital. It made me think of all those children in pain who have lost their body parts but not their smiles, and those parents who smile through their pain, firm in their hope and positivity for a cancer-free tomorrow for their beloved child. All of them express immense gratitude towards the philanthropist we all know today as Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan. The way he is changing the lives of those children fills me with hope of the bright future that Khan’s premiership could bring forth for our Pakistan.