Silent Samaritans: Delhi:Home Cancer Care unit, RGCI

Amid fading hope, they bring cheer

Team Of 3 Docs Treats Terminally-Ill Cancer Patients, Counsels Their Kin

Shreya Roy Chowdhury | TNN
FIGHT TILL THE END: Home Cancer Care Unit of Rajiv Gandhi Cancer Institute visits patients every 15 days

FIGHT TILL THE END: Home Cancer Care Unit of Rajiv Gandhi Cancer Institute visits patients every 15 days

New Delhi: Once every fortnight Swarn Kanta Kohli, terminally ill with abdominal cancer, wakes up early with a smile on her lips and cheer in her heart. It’s the day her friends drop by.

These are no ordinary friends but doctors from Home Cancer Care unit of Rajiv Gandhi Cancer Institute in Rohini. For the past three years, they have treated and counselled her — all for free — just as they have been doing with terminally-ill patients across Delhi.

Rajni Mutneja heads the three-member team, the others a psychologist and a nurse.

They can’t cure but make patients in their care comfortable. They visit the home of each patient at least once in 15 days, bearing nutritional powders, medicines, bandages and words of advice.

‘‘Their support is important. My mother looks to their visits,’’ says Vinod Kohli.

Team-head since 1999, Mutneja says that on an average, there are about 50 patients in their care at a time, two to three of them below the age of 20. Families are counselled against use of futile and frequently harmful alternative therapies; beds and wheelchairs left by deceased patients are circulated among others.

The fortnightly gesture of comfort is even more appreciated by families whose patient is bedridden and unresponsive. Vikrant Pande’s son Rahul was diagnosed with acute leukemia in 2001. He was just 10. In 2003, Rahul slipped into coma. When a 38-day stay at the hospital ended with no improvement, he was discharged. ‘‘It is difficult looking after a patient who can’t express his suffering.

We call the home care group whenever he has a cold or fever or his bedsores need dressing. It really boosts our morale to know someone from the hospital is helping our son,’’ says his father. On visits, lab coats are left behind — many families don’t want neighbours to know. Pande, for instance, is afraid that knowledge of his son’s condition can affect his 21-year-old daughter’s marriage prospects.

They do their best but can’t afford to get too involved. ‘‘Most live for a few weeks to a few months after registering,’’ says Mutneja, who gave up her career as a gynaecologist to tend to the dying. Only about 20% survive beyond two years. ‘‘Sometimes, we call a day before and find upon arriving that the patient passed away in the meantime,’’ she says. But association with the family doesn’t end with the patient’s demise. ‘‘We do at least one condolence visit,’’ says Anita, ‘‘but many of them stay in touch.’’

Much of their work is counselling the families. The team psychologist, Anita Kumari, relates the case of one 52-year-old patient they’re attending to. ‘‘Her husband was stressed and the attendant said he was popping sleeping pills,’’ she says. She got him to speak up while his wife slept, extending support.

The home care programme started a year after the hospital itself, in 1997. ‘‘It is based on the West’s hospice concept,’’ says medical director Dr AK Chaturvedi. Most patients are from RGCI, but about 15% are referred by other hospitals. Since 1997, the team has attended to 2,200 patients. And according to Chaturvedi, there are plans of adding another team.

‘‘We’ve seen so much death,’’ says Anita, who previously worked with an NGO helping school dropouts get back on track. But there’s no sense of despondence.

‘‘You can’t tell what’s in store even for a healthy person,’’ Mutneja reasons. ‘‘We feel satisfied when the patients feel better and their families bless us,’’ they agree.
(Some names have been changed to protect identity)

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