WHEN Swati and Krishnendu Roy from Kolkata rushed to Tata Memorial Hospital (TMH) in Mumbai in May 2014 with their son Snehal, then 7 years old, they had no idea that they wouldn’t return home for 11 months. Diagnosed with bone marrow cancer, Snehal was admitted immediately. The simple lower middle class family put away every penny they had for his medical care, living in a Rs 250-a-day lodge in a Chembur slum. “We’d spend days and nights on end in the hospital itself, forgetting to eat, weary of the commute and of that awful room we had rented, with no idea how we would continue to live in this city while Snehal’s treatment continued,” says Swati.
Scores of families, unable to find accommodation in dharamshalas for cancer patients and unable to afford anything else, end up living on the pavements outside Tata Memorial Hospital, Parel. Luckily for the Roys, somebody told them about St Jude India Childcare Centres, a 10-year-old institution offering residential facilities for children being treated at TMH and their parents, at no cost.
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St Jude’s centres currently offer space for 90 families at a time at multiple locations in Mumbai and Kharghar. Now, they are being nearly trebled with the opening of 14 more centres or floors, to accommodate another 165 families at a time this weekend. “That takes care of 60 to 70 per cent of the entire need for such spaces in Mumbai for outstation child patients at TMH,” says Usha Banerjee, CEO of St Jude India Childcare Centres. The new space, four four-storey buildings in Cotton Green, are donated by the Mumbai Port Trust to TMH.
Oncologists say childhood cancers are highly curable, so St Jude’s role is critical in offering a physical living space and the emotional support it takes to ensure that families don’t let circumstances pull a child out of treatment midway.
St Jude India Childcare Centres currently runs 18 centres in Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Hyderabad and Jaipur. At all centres, there is a safe and clean living space and also weekly rations, an individual stove-top and cooking gas for every family, transportation to the hospital, counselling, educational and recreational activities ranging from art to music and yoga.
“Heaven and hell, that was the difference we noted when we moved in,” says Swati, 35, who says the 11-month stint in Mumbai changed her dramatically. “Two years back I needed my husband if I wanted to buy clothes for myself. Now I bring Snehal on my own from Kolkata to this big city, and it has been such a long journey for me.” Krishnendu, under stress and unable to operate his fast food outlet for over a year, underwent a bypass surgery and is now advised not to work, but Swati expects her newfound confidence will help her start something of her own soon, maybe a knitting or sewing enterprise.
Other mothers who spent weeks here, especially those from rural Maharashtra, say they’ve started basket weaving at home since being taught the skill at St Jude’s. At the new centres in Cotton Green, a future plan is a more formalised programme for parents who can take those skills back home for entrepreneurial or employment prospects once the family has emerged from the treatment cycle.
Other women at the Parel centre are happy to have made friends for the first time, swapping phone numbers with other mothers. The months spent here are deeply impactful — some talk about better hygiene standards at home, and a survey of families found some who’d painted their homes yellow, the colour of St Jude’s cheerful centres.