How to Save a Life

This week’s cover of Time Magazine proclaims the following: “Six million children–and even more adults–die unnecessarily every year. Good people all over the world are doing their best to save them. You can too.”  I like big statements like this.  One of the things that discourages me most about many current governments around the world is that they have stopped thinking big.  All new initiatives of late seem to revolve around protecting people from terrorists or easing restrictions that allow corporations to make more money.  Where are the proactive ideas that can change the most overlooked lives with even a tiny investment? As we have seen from recent diasters, it is the most ordinary of people that are left to think and act big.  Many of them come through:

We make a living by what we get, Churchill said, but we make a life by what we give. And to save a life? If you’re Bill Gates, the richest man in the world, you give fantastic sums of money, more than $1 billion this year alone. But he also gives the brainpower that helped him make that money in the first place, hunting down the best ideas for where to fight, how to focus, what to fund. If you’re a rock star like Bono, you give money. But you also give the hot white lights that follow you everywhere, so that they shine on problems that grow in shadows. If you’re Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, you raise money–but you also give the symbols of power and the power of symbols: two men, old enemies, who got over it because the needs are so pressing that they now work together. It’s a model for unlikely partnerships of the kind that progress demands, partnerships among doctors and pastors and moguls and lawyers and activists and tribal chiefs and health ministers and all the frontline angels of mercy everywhere.

Time features 18 “frontline angels of mercy,” which include Drs. Abhay and Rani Bang, as well as chemist Ram Shrestha

The Bang’s set up a community hospital amongst the poorest of villages of a forest-dwelling tribe:

Like many great medical breakthroughs, Drs. Abhay and Rani Bang’s discovery of how to reduce child deaths in the developing world as much as 75% came from a deceptively simple premise. “We decided to listen to our patients,” says Abhay. That may sound obvious, but in 1986, when the pair returned to their poor, central Indian hometown of Gadchiroli with master’s degrees in public health from Johns Hopkins University, it was a novel approach…

He and Rani, 54, had already decided to follow Gandhian principles and live and work with the poor, founding a trust they called the Society for Education, Action and Research in Community Health. After setting up a lab in an old warehouse, they began surveying two nearby villages. The results were immediate. “If you actually talked to the mothers, you discovered women had other needs than just contraception,” says Abhay. “We found 92% had gynecological diseases…”

Encouraged, the Bangs listened some more. They identified alcohol abuse as another big issue and began addiction treatment. And given that half their patients were from the forest-dwelling Gond tribe and wary of city hospitals, the Bangs asked them what a Gond hospital might look like. The result is what Abhay named Shodhagram (Research Village), a medical center outside Gadchiroli that resembles a village, with separate huts housing the lab, surgery, pharmacy, wards, library and even a shrine to the Gond goddess Danteshwari. [Link]


p>Shrestha realized that an idea as simple as distributing cheap vitamins could go a long way in saving children:

The poverty in Nepal and the toll it exacts on its smallest citizens are staggering. Twenty years ago, the infant-mortality rate was 133 for every 1,000 births, most of the babies claimed by pneumonia and diarrhea. By the 1980s, it was clear that a lack of vitamin A in the Nepalese diet was a factor in the high rates of infant mortality and in a form of blindness. All it would take to reduce both would be a low-cost vitamin-A capsule taken as infrequently as twice a year…

The first thing he realized was that no matter who sponsored the program, the villagers were not going to be receptive unless they felt some ownership of it. So he began traveling through remote areas, explaining the benefits of vitamin A and looking for volunteers to help distribute the pills. When he signed someone up, he would return for a follow-up visit, accompanied by the district chief. Shrestha would make a show of asking passersby for directions to the volunteer’s home; with the chief in the car, it was clear they must be on some vital business. “Whole families had to feel it was important,” Shrestha says…

Shrestha clearly had a knack for this kind of thing, but his next idea was pure genius. As the need for volunteers grew more acute, he started thinking about which individuals in Nepalese society–or most societies, for that matter–have the most influence in the family but are the least utilized. That’s when he came up with the grandmothers. They have the time to distribute the pills and the moral authority to see that the children jolly well take them. And it didn’t matter if some of the women were too frail to make the rounds; the program actually worked better when villagers came to them to get the pills. “Even within a limited physical environment,” says Shrestha, “the grandmothers can do a lot…” [Link]

One thought on “How to Save a Life

  1. Of the 18 achievements, my favorite has to be Ram ShresthaÂ’s. Using grandmothers to distribute medicine, particularly to children, is ingenious. My grandmother is almost draconian in getting her kids and grandkids to eat right…and when she commands one of us to do something, we damn well do it.

    Granted this is a huge generalization, and IÂ’ll be the first to admit that, but I love his idea because it gives grandmothers a purpose and an objective when so many of them begin to feel useless later in life. ItÂ’s easy for them to get alienated when theyÂ’re perceived as weak and powerless. When entire families—but especially kids—start to become more self-sufficient with increased access to education and job opportunities, IÂ’ve seen so many grandparents become disconnected and isolated from the lives around them. It’s time someone brought them back into the heart of family life.