INTRODUCTION: Thousands of Ismailis around the world pledged a Nazrana (the term means an offering, a gift or a present) of Time and Knowledge (TKN) to their 49th Imam, Mawlana Shah Karim al-Hussaini, His Highness the Aga Khan, during the celebration of his Golden Jubilee from July 11, 2007 until December 13, 2008. Numerous Ismaili individuals have since dedicated their time in the cause of institutional service and humanity at large in many endeavours around the world, without any remuneration. The story and photographs we are producing below is an example of hope and joy that one individual’s commitment to TKN has brought to people living in some of the remotest areas in the world. We hope that this will encourage other individuals to come forward and share their stories as part of Simerg’s 4th anniversary series dedicated to Ismaili volunteers, badged as well as non-badged.
A SURGEON’S PERSONAL STORY
“BLIND TODAY…SEEING TOMORROW”
BY BADRUDIN KURWA
BACKGROUND: THE REAL HAJJ
One might wonder why a successful and busy eye surgeon, at the age of 60, would want to take the many risks associated with the project of restoring eye-sight in one of the remotest corners of the world.
I was aware of the considerable risks and my family’s deep concerns about safety, security and health issues. We had heard about a recent incident in Nanga Parbat where nine mountain climbers were shot point-blank. Then there was the risk of getting sick from gastro intestinal disorders or malaria or worse. Also, the treacherous mountain driving meant accidents were a constant risk.
Some years ago, I thought that I was in perfect health until I developed a small hernia. Upon the repeated prompting of my ‘doctor daughter’, I decided to finally get it fixed about two years ago. We were all set for the surgery when routine preop lab work showed severe anemia. I could not believe it. I was perfectly fit and active as ever with absolutely no symptoms. A repeat test at a different lab confirmed the anemia. At my age, unexplained anemia is a serious concern for colon cancer. So I went through numerous tests which revealed that I had several problems including gastritis, colon polyps, gluten allergy and squamous cell carcinoma.
So I made a pact with my Mawla. “You save me, and I will give back to the community in whatever way you ask”. So there it was. Chemotherapy and Radiation for the following several months eradicated the cancer completely. The oncologist was amazed at the results, thankfully the cancer was caught at an early stage. Most of the time, the patient has no clue until it spreads everywhere and gets to an incurable stage. I guess Allah had plans for me unbeknownst to me.
So this year, it was payback time. I got a call from the offices of TKN and the Aga Khan Health Board (AKHB) that they needed me for this incredible project, “New eyes for Old” or “Blind today…Seeing Tomorrow”.
Mawla gave me 30 years to perfect my skills and now it was time to do my part.
This to me was the real Hajj, not simply going to Mecca – whatever skills Allah has given us the opportunity to become good at, we can use that gift and blessing from Allah to do what we can to help fellow human beings.
The amazing thing I realized was that you can see many obstacles when you are considering a project like this, but if you have the courage and commitment to take on the challenge, Allah makes it happen. I thought to myself, “How will I alone make a difference? There are 2500 people blind from cataracts just in Chitral alone, and my intention to do 100 surgeries will be a drop in the bucket”. But He had bigger plans.
Because of my willingness to go and the uniqueness of the project, the local Chitral health board did an amazing job of getting people’s attention, and pre-screened 850 people in all the outlying villages. I am told 450 of these came to have cataract surgery done after my departure with the local eye surgeon in Chitral City, because they were not able to see me but realized from my visit that sight could be restored.
The general perception for all these years in that community has been that if you are old and blind that is just life, because it is the will of Allah and you live the best you can with what you have been given. Now, suddenly, they realized that it is a curable condition. I performed about a hundred surgeries but the impetus, what I might call a “Leveraged Social Entrepreneurship” inspired another 450 people to come forward for surgery to get their sight back. What a tremendous return for the effort put in. This was His will and doing.
It seems we have started a small revolution in getting people to realize and take action if their parents are blind. We almost had a riot, once the word got out that I was there; so many people came once they realized that treatment was possible.
So this was the tip of the iceberg, now there is interest from Gilgit and Hunza to replicate these efforts and there is a tremendous need in Central Asia and Africa. So you see you just have to say “yes I will” and Allah is right there with you!
ARRIVAL IN PAKISTAN AND THE SURGERIES IN CHITRAL
It was 1.30 am; I had just landed in Islamabad, Pakistan and gone through immigration when suddenly everything went pitch dark…the power went out in the entire airport and all operations ground to a halt. I waited in the dark for about 15 minutes and the lights came on (I had heard stories where it was common for the power to go out for hours on end). I walked out of the airport, thankful that the outage had only been for a few minutes. And there I saw a big bill board saying “Welcome to Islamabad”, and I thought to myself that for me the greatest adventure of my life was just starting. After flying straight for 26 hours from sunny Los Angeles here I was ready to get to Chitral for my TKN assignment – the first of its kind, an eye surgical camp in the ‘boonies’. Yes, my first assignment was to go to the Aga Khan Health Center in a small town actually called ‘Booni’.
The project was to restore sight to the people of Chitral blinded by cataracts. I was told there are about 2500 people blind from cataracts in this isolated region of Northern Pakistan and over 80% are Ismailis. These people were pretty much totally blind due to their cataracts, an easily cured condition in the West but without modern surgical techniques, these people were doomed to live a life of blindness. The general belief here was that one gets old and one goes blind, that is old age. You live your life the best you can. It is Allah’s wish and one should accept it. The idea of curing cataracts and getting sight back was unheard of. Most people did not know it could be done and then they did not have the money or access to surgical care.
AKHB-Pakistan and AKHB-USA recognized their plight and took a bold decision, and decided to do a pilot project to see if we could restore sight to the people of Chitral. So here I was headed towards the northern most region of Pakistan. A mountainous region with extremely poor people eking out a living on small pieces of farmland, cut off from the rest of the world many months in the year due to severe snow conditions and treacherous roads carved out of the side of the mountains and constantly in disrepair. The journey from Islamabad to Chitral City is a bone shaking twelve-hour drive on a road that is scarcely six inches wider than your car, and one has to watch out for oncoming traffic and hairpin ‘U’ turns that have no barriers or signs. We made it to Booni safely and I got busy getting the operating theater ready. I had two wonderful surgical technicians that made my work so much easier. They were amazing in their call to duty.
The days flew by as we operated day after day from 8am to 10pm. What a great experience! Patients were blind one day, and could see the next day. You could see the joy and gratitude in their eyes as they looked around in amazement, and began to recognize their family members. It was touching to see them giving everyone loving hugs. They came forward and kissed our hands and prayed for us with all their hearts…there is no feeling as beautiful as that. The trip was so well worth it, and my hats off to the wonderful staff who made it possible. I performed 98 surgeries in two weeks.
The parents of two girls, one aged ten and the other eighteen, came and pleaded that they were born cross-eyed and if they stayed like that no one would marry them! So I felt compelled to do eye surgery to straighten their eyes and they were so grateful. One man had only one eye and the eyelid was so droopy that he could not open his eye, so I fixed his eyelid up so he could open the eye and see again.
We visited a second city, Shogore, in lower Chitral where we were also greeted with a most wonderful response.
So the plan now is to improve on our efforts for there is clearly a need not just in Chitral but also in adjoining Gilgit, Hunza, other Central Asia countries as well as African countries where there are significant Ismaili communities.
Date posted: Wednesday, September 25, 2013.
Copyright: Badrudin Kurwa/Simerg.
Dr Badrudin Kurwa MD, FACS, FRCS(C) was born in Mumbai, India, and moved to Karachi, Pakistan, with his family in 1958. He was recognized as a very talented and bright student from a very early age, and at the age of 12 he was awarded the first prize for his academic excellence by His Highness the Aga Khan (see photo in article above). He became the first Ismaili as well as the youngest person to win the coveted Gold Medal from the Pakistan Association of Scientists and Scientific Professions (PASSP) in 1967. As a youth, Kurwa was also a keen musician and played for the Aga Khan orchestra.
After completing his matriculation, he went to the United Kingdom and did his Pre-medical training in Oxford, and then attended the Medical School at Birmingham University, following which he proceeded to Chicago, USA, for his eye surgery training, He became involved as a volunteer within the Ismaili Muslim community, starting the 1st Ismaili Health Clinic in Chicago, and later helping to establish clinics in Houston and Los Angeles to serve members of the community lacking health insurance coverage. The Houston jamati clinic known as the Ibn-e-Sina clinic (named after the famous Muslim physician/scientist) continues to provide medical services even today after over 30 years, and is expanding to provide care to the local low-income community.
In 1996, Dr Kurwa founded the Ismaili Health Professionals Association under the auspices of Aga Khan Health Board, USA, and was its first President. He also served with His Highness the Aga Khan National Council for the USA, and as a member organized Health Fairs in major US cities.
On the professional side, Dr. Badrudin Kurwa holds four US patents and has been Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Southern California, Doheny Eye Center, and at the University of Galveston, Texas.
Simerg is looking for stories of Ismaili volunteers, as part of its fourth anniversary. To contribute, please read Stories of Ismaili Volunteers from Around the World.
The volunteer series so far:
- The Spirit of the Ismaili Volunteers at an Extraordinary Place
- Volunteers, the Unsung Heroes of the World-Class 2008 Ismaili Golden Jubilee Games Celebrating the 50th Imamat Anniversary of His Highness the Aga Khan
- Rajabali Mecklai, 85, Serves the Vancouver Ismailis and Community at Large with Dedication and Distinction
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