Following is an interview with Mr. Devasish Sharma, Commissioner Guwahati Municipal Corporation, and the founder of Deepsikha, a foundation that works for the cause of cancer care, on the occasion of 7th November being Cancer Awareness Day.
Last year, he undertook a journey from Mumbai to Guwahati in 2020, at the brink of the Covid-19 pandemic, with numerous cancer patients in 6 buses to get them to hospitals in their home state Assam, after Tata Memorial Hospital in Mumbai was forced to shut down its OPD. Assam Bhawan is the only statehouse in the country dedicated to looking after cancer patients. Due to a lack of good hospitals for cancer treatment in Assam and other North-East states, many patients contact Assam Bhawan for accommodation in Mumbai. At the time, Tata Memorial Hospital had a long waiting list, so new patients were not taken in, and the dates for surgeries, chemotherapy, or radiotherapy were delayed. Moreover, hotels and guesthouses were shutting down too. When people started getting desperate, they reached out to Assam Bhawan to help them get back home. They also received a call from Narayan Hridayalay near Haji Ali that there were twelve children aged from a few months to 12-year-old who had come to Mumbai for their heart surgeries and needed to get back home. Even though a risk, “a well-coordinated team effort” resulted in a successful journey.
We also spoke to Mr. Devasish about his foundation Deepsikha, the thought behind the name, the work the foundation has been doing, and his mission with the same. Moreover, Mr. Sharma leaves us a very sweet and positive message at the end.
What were the issues you faced while undertaking this journey, given it was a long one and there were numerous Covid restrictions?
Mr. Sharma told us that various issues started springing up before the journey even began. The initial decision had been to take the patients to Assam via air. Few airlines had been contacted, and they asked Assam Bhawan to conduct Covid tests. This air travel would have cost Rs. 35 lakhs; however, the current chief minister of Assam, Mr. Hemant Biswa Sharma (the then health minister), agreed to bear the cost without a hitch. Unfortunately, Mr. Sharma said, “Man proposes but God disposes of,” and four patients tested positive, though asymptomatic. Assam Bhawan was declared a containment zone, and the Assam Bhawan team had to administer vaccines and drive patients for their treatments, wearing donated PPE kits. Ultimately, the airlines cancelled the bookings. It was tough news to break to the patients, and Mr. Sharma told us that “women were howling and crying and rolling in the corridors of Assam Bhawan. Two people fainted.”
So, travel via road had been a “desperate decision.” He confessed that it was “maybe not practical if you go by absolute logic, but there are times in life when things that govern your decision-making are totally different,” and logic has to be put aside. Though risky, the honourable minister urged Mr. Sharma to try.
Seven different transporters were approached; six had read about Assam Bhawan cases and outright refused. Neeta Volvo reached through friendship networks, agreed, though apprehensively, at the rate of Rs. 8 lakhs per bus and only 50% capacity per bus. These were Mercedes buses, and six buses needed to be hired. Mr. Hemant Biswa Sharma again agreed without any apprehensions to bear this cost. Mr. Sharma noted that he owes a great deal to his team as well as Mr. Hemant.
This journey required a lot of planning, and four days were spent doing the same. There was approximately 3,200 km. and six states to be crossed. The lockdown needed to be kept in mind as well. Mr. Sharma conveyed great thanks to Mrs. Neeta Doshi, head of Deepsikha’s finance department since she put her Rotary Club membership to use to gather volunteers along the way. Additionally, she had contacted Jain Mandirs and Swaminarayan Mandirs for their assistance in various states. She also stocked all buses with utensils and dry foods that could last them five days.
While eagerly trying to arrange for a doctor, Mr. Sharma recalled that Dr.Neelakshi Choudhury, an ENT surgeon who had come to Hinduja hospital for a specialization degree, had contacted the Assam Bhawan to know of any special flight that could take her back home. He contacted her, assured her husband and her father of her safety, and had her come on board for this journey as the on-call doctor.
They started on 8th May and reached five days later. Numerous challenges sprung midway.
On the first day itself, one patient with osteosarcoma fainted. The patient was brought to consciousness in less than half an hour.
After this worrisome incident, they could find no Dhaba or restaurant open. So Mrs. Neeta Doshi called the local politician to arrange for food. Mr. Sharma commented that “I never relished puri sabzi more than I did that day.”
The next day bus number 5 was hit by another vehicle, and the windows broke; therefore, they had to be packed with cardboard boxes.
Later on, another bus lost its windshield due to a small collision. However, it had not broken completely, and the driver complained that pieces of glass were flying at his face. Mr. Sharma advised him to break the glass completely. The driver feared his owner, so Mr. Sharma took a hammer to take care of the situation. He laughed, admitting that it was a tough decision, but they could not have waited for a green signal from the owner sitting in Mumbai. He then stopped a person on a scooter to ask for a helmet. That person did not have one, but he still offered to go get one from his friend who sells helmets. “Look at the sanjhok!” (coincidence) exclaimed Mr. Sharma. Thirty minutes later, he returned with a good helmet and even refused to take money, which made Mr. Sharma exclaim, “Look at the exposition of humanity.” He left before we could thank him for his generosity. The helmet was needed to shield the driver’s face in the windshield-less bus.
By the third day, stomach aches, headaches, and nausea had begun; Dr.Neelakshi took care of it all with great ease.
A guy with a Ryles tube, a tube inserted through the nose for feeding purposes, had the tube come out because of the bumpy roads. Dr.Neelakshi reinserted the tube back in a moving bus – a commendable task.
There was also no stand for saline solution bottles, so the people on top bunks held the saline bottles whenever required.
Mr. Sharma had carried his guitar with him and used it to pep up the patients along the way. There was a lot of singing and dancing, especially Bihu.
One time, a bus refused to start, and since it was computerized, the mechanic with them was unable to work on it. So, the driver and the mechanic went under the bus and were instructed on a video call by an engineer in Mumbai on how to conduct the repair work.
When they finally reached Guwahati, seven patients tested positive. But on a more positive note, there had been many patients in the second or third stage of cancer; however, all of them reached home safely.
There was a man on board in the terminal stage of his cancer, well aware that there was no treatment for him; however, he desperately wanted to go back home and see his children before he died. This he did and then passed away peacefully in his own home 7 days later.
All other treatments were resumed, and surgeries were conducted successfully.
Mr. Sharma’s parents came to meet him, but they had to do that from 6 feet away. His mother rushed to hug him too, but she was stopped by the volunteers. Mr. Hemant politely asked Mr. Sharma to go back to Mumbai the next day itself.
Mr. Sharma will always stay amazed with “how people had joined hands” every step of the way. He also is sure that there was a “hand of God” over them.
You’re also the founder of Deepsikha, a foundation that works for cancer care, so would you like to tell us a bit about it? How was the foundation named so? What is your vision with the foundation?
Mr. Sharma started Deepsikha as a foundation in 2004 with three of his officers from Assam Bhawan, his wife, and his mother; however, they had started working informally with cancer patients much before.
He claimed Deepsikha is named so because in Hindi, “Deep” means lamp, and “Sikha” is the wick. The basic idea behind the name has been that “all of us want to do something for society,” something that lights up the world. Mr. Sharma says that “Even if you light your small little lamps,” slowly and steadily, the whole world will light up on its own, so to say that, a little effort and care go a long way. With this beautiful thought, he went along to tell us all provided for by Deepsikha.
In Mumbai, they have five homes with accommodation for 200 cancer patients. The food there is served at Rs. 10, as well as free transport, is available to and from the hospital. They also provide financial support to some extent, along with organizing blood and platelet supply.
In Assam, there is a hospice for terminally ill patients in Mirza. Patients that require palliative care are welcomed with open arms. There also is a ‘ShishuAshray Sthal’ – here children along with their parents are given a place to stay for as long as they require with free food and transport. Then, there is a rehabilitation home in Jorhat nearing completion where people who have lost earning family members to cancer are taught trades to help them adjust and earn in society. Patients who have lost limbs too are helped to accommodate in society. Another cancer patient home exists in Dibrugarh.
Additionally, Deepsikha drives mobile cancer screening vans which go to remote areas for cancer screening in head and neck areas. Mr. Sharma said that consumption of tobacco and betel nut is common in Assam; it ultimately is the cause of cancer in various people. The mobile system for cancer screening was initiated because Mr. Sharma believes that “Treatment of cancer is good, but early diagnosis is much more important.” Mammography and Pap smear for females is also provided via these vans.
All operations are supported through donations made by individuals as well as corporates.
Mr. Sharma declares that he has “A beautiful team” working for him, “A small team but a very very close-knit and a very very dedicated team.” The Guwahati Chapter of Deepsikha is headed by Dr.Mrinmoyee Baruah, and all functions in Mumbai are handled and headed by Mrs. Parul Negi and Mrs. Neeta Doshi. Mr. Sharma wholeheartedly states that he owes a lot to his team.
He then comments that “End of…life, it is not how much money you owe…your ultimate happiness is realizing it was a life well lived where I have not lived only for myself, but also shared the sorrows and plight of fellow human beings…that is a great feeling in itself”. This is the purpose of Deepsikha.
Was there a particular event or experience in your life that made you find your calling with social services?
Mr. Devasish humbly revealed that a streak to help has always been in him, saying, “Even in my student days, I used to jump into this kind of things” and that his friends from college can vouch for the same.
He believes that Deepsikha happened because good people started joining hands. Though while pondering over a primary reason, Mr. Sharma acknowledged that his transfer from being the Special Officer to the then Governor of Assam, Lieutenant General Srinivas Kumar Sinha, to getting posted as the Deputy Resident Commissioner of the Assam Bhawan in Mumbai had a lot to do with it. “When I reached the Assam Bhawan, I realized that there are a lot of cancer patients coming to Mumbai for treatment.” He then wrote to the government suggesting not to convert Assam Bhawan into a guest house for the rich and the powerful, saying that they wanted to make it a “home.” He confessed that it took him about 12 years to bring out the order; however, that is a long story for another time.
In your long years of service, have you come across any patient whose story stuck with you?
Mr. Sharma responded by saying that “Every day there is a new story. Every patient has a story to tell; of how it happened, why it happened.” Each patient’s journey to accepting this affliction and learning to fight it is moving in its own specific way.
However, Mr. Sharma admitted that it affects him a lot when people invite this disease unto themselves: like by consuming tobacco regularly, knowing full well the consequences of such a habit. He wishes he could do something about it.
You understand the world of cancer patients, so you would know best how laypeople can aid those who are fighting cancer?
Mr. Sharma asked us not to “pity” cancer patients, adding that words like ‘helpless’ do not help. He advised that everyone should avoid using phrases like “This is as bad as cancer” in general conversation to sensitize the masses because a patient is not at fault in any way. Moreover, such phrases just build up the negative connotations around the disease. He also emphasized that these patients do not want sympathy, “they want to love and acceptance”.
His ultimate message to us was “Cancer se darro matt, cancer se lardo” (Do not fear cancer, fight cancer). According to him, if one is not bogged down by negative thoughts, it becomes easier to conquer the disease. Half the battle is won in mind. A positive attitude is important. It is durable; it can be conquered, so, he says, if society and the caregivers have the right approach, it helps.