Helping Hand Foundation – Injecting Life into Telangana’s Public Health Services

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SPECIAL REPORT

At a time when hospitals were running out of beds during the pandemic, volunteers of HHF even took care of the last rites of Covid victims deserted by their family

Syed Khaled Shahbaaz | Clarion India

HYDERABAD — It’s a rather sunny day in Hyderabad for December. The rustling of trees is still audible despite cacophony of traffic on the busy street outside. There’s a man dressed in a white polo shirt at the entrance of the building, laced with greenery all around.

And an awning with aluminium chairs underneath doubles as a waiting area. Long vehicles parked in such decent assembly make you feel they are chauffeur-driven, but that would be an exaggeration. The man, wearing white gloves, approaches promptly, and asks politely “whom do you want to meet”?

The scene must seem straight from the portico of a star hotel, but it’s not. The building is known as Malakpet Area Hospital, the vehicles are ambulances, and the man in white shirt is one of the many volunteers of Helping Hand Foundation that’s leveraging access to public healthcare institutions for the blue-collar population of society.

Take a step forward, and there’s a pair of young volunteers at the reception known as Help Desk, set up by the Foundation to help visitors setting foot in the government-run hospital to make the best use of the facilities. This can include going to the right section to meeting the right doctor for diagnosis. The volunteers are professionally trained and cognisant enough to grasp the medical needs of the visiting patients and redirect them to the right department.

Helping Help Foundation volunteers all ready to provide help to patients.

On the other side, there’s an orderly queue, uncharacteristic of a government hospital, comprising young women waiting for medicos to administer paediatric vaccines to their new-borns. Some are now sitting on the benches as opposed to the floors previously.

Hustling volunteers dressed in white shirts can be seen in most of the multiple corridors of the large hospital. The situation is similar across 18 hospitals managed by the government across the state, including the famous Osmania General Hospital, Gandhi Hospital, Fever Hospital, Area Hospitals and primary health centres. But, there’s more to it than meets the eye.

Founded by an engineer-turned-healthcare activist Mujtaba Hasan Askari, the Helping Hand Foundation (HHF) has added life to the otherwise lethargic and oft-neglected public health institutions in the state so much so that its insightful research, and data intrinsically gathered by first-hand interactions with a diversity of patients, and social sections, could be used to influence and formulate certain government health policies.

From raising awareness of Vitamin D on World Vitamin D Day to conducting blood camps, from carrying out research-based health surveys to identifying and documenting problems the weaker sections are entangled in, its persona has emerged as something that can unmistakably be dubbed as larger than life.

As Mujtaba Askari puts it, “we started with the idea of helping people, but we cannot help everybody due to financial limitations, so we decided to contribute in improving the facilities at the government hospitals as they have the best infrastructure and the best doctors. The idea is to help the poor and the middle class family save their hard-earned money in health expenses.”

HHF volunteers team all alert for any emergency

Giving them the gift of understanding and using government hospitals and primary institutions, drawing them closer to the free medicine, free treatment model, identifying patients in government hospitals that need acute medical attention to redirecting them within the network of government hospitals where their treatment cost can be annulled, the Foundation’s goal is clear–to improve the public health system so much that people regain their trust in the government institutions.

At a time when hospitals were running out of beds, and people out of sympathy even for their immediate family members who had succumbed to covid, volunteers of HHF took care of the last rites of covid victims deserted by their family. They transported these bodies, spoke to the graveyard people, and buried or cremated the victims according to their religious customs.

Volunteers of HHF took care of the last rites of covid victims deserted by their family.

In the October flash floods that rattled Hyderabad, these volunteers, accompanied by a team of doctors, walked through knee-deep slush, distributing medicines, checking health needs of these people as well as going door to door and providing succour to anyone in need of medical attention. It concluded the camp with a survey report of the derma problems the floods have caused among the affected families.

It is one of the largest and most comprehensive public health management network in state-run hospitals. Statistically, HHF, in association with SEED, USA mobilised and spent more than Rs 1.25 crore in aid for the October flood victims, conducted 115 medical camps providing free screening and medication to over 18,000 patients in some of the areas worst-hit by the floods, provided ration and essential kits, helped daily wage earners and push cart vendors repair their damaged vehicles, autos and homes.

Speaking to Clarion India, he said “like-minded organisations must join hands together to reduce overlap and increase the number of beneficiaries.” It partnered with different NGOs to do exactly the same. In partnership with UK-based Al Khair Foundation, HHF could help nearly 450 families restart life by providing them household items with a total cost of Rs. 18 lakhs, donated 1 lakh soap bars for flood victims in association with Dettol (Reckitt & Coleman) and partnered with Dr. Reddy’s Lab to provide anti-fungal medication to flood-affected families during its camps.

In the October flash floods that rattled Hyderabad, HHF volunteers, accompanied by a team of doctors, walked through knee-deep slush, distributing medicines, checking health needs of these people

It brought together Access Foundation, Safa Baitul Maal, Goonj, SDIM and other NGOs as a platform to help flood victims in real-life practice of the saying “two hands are better than one”, especially in a position to give. The exercise was coupled with a survey to identify and rehabilitate nearly 500 people to safe zones.

The world has saluted healthcare workers; even flower petals were showered through a chopper calling them frontline defence against the virus, but what remained out of picture was the silently working team of paramedics, volunteers, and youngsters driven by an uncompromising passion to give back.

Everyone knows that healthcare is indispensable for any community, or section, and it must reach even the deepest pockets of the societies, but very few tread on the path to make it happen. With the covid pandemic wreaking havoc in 2020, the health care system went into an overdrive, and HHF was busy linking the common man to public hospitals, helping them utilise the public health infrastructure in optimum capacity, with the help of its guided team of volunteers, and healthcare workers.

At the Gandhi Hospital which was the hotspot for treatment of covid-positive patients, the NGO’s volunteers were helping distressed patients and giving them moral support. “We want to make the best use of available resources to help people who do not know how to benefit from them”, said a volunteer.

No wonder, it received both great appreciation and good encouragement from across the city, and even from the Indian diaspora abroad. According to Founder-Trustee Mujtaba Askari, “more than $1 million was donated in Telangana alone during the pandemic. ”

HHF volunteers taking relief material through flooded streets.

When there’s a crisis, the solution is not in hiding under the blanket, but facing the problem and solving it. And so they did. From raising awareness on oral cancer among youth in the poorer sections to identifying the TB problems in urban slums, HHF has penetrated more than 30 state government hospitals with more than 60 volunteers at any given instance, in addition to establishing its own primary, palliative and rehab centres that offer free treatment.

It’s community health centres cover 22 urban slums with a total population of nearly 4 lakh people. It transformed mosques into health and screening centres for those at the bottom of the pyramid.

From robotic surgeries to augmented reality and artificial intelligence to internet of things, healthcare in Telangana has seen great strides, but HHF treads a different path, one that is focussed entirely on guiding the poor and underprivileged while resorting to public health institutions for the purpose.

When asked what can be done to improvise India’s health care, he points out that the country’s health expenditure is a meagre 1.3% of GDP and must be increased at least in the light of the recent pandemic that choked both public and private health institutions in the country.

Taking relief material to flood affected people

He signs off saying that donations from NGOs, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives from several top-drawer multi-national organisations, and sadqath, zakat and other contributions from the Muslim community have been significant in its quest to be the umbrella body of health guidance and treatment for the poor. It seems to have found a new direction for public health care system in the state, and do everything possible to extend a helping hand to anyone and everyone it can.

As Mahatma Gandhi had once said “the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others”.

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