Soon after arriving in India, Dr. Maggi O’Brien knew she was in the right place at the right time.
A mere 10 days before her departure date, Dr. O’Brien, associate dean of student affairs at the University of South Alabama College of Medicine, learned of the Rotary International trip to India that was centered around National Immunization Day (NID) -- Feb. 7, 2010.
“It was the perfect scenario for me to get to India. I immediately got my immunizations at the Board of Health, booked the flights and applied for a visa,” Dr. O’Brien said. “With no passport and visa in hand two days before the scheduled departure, I had reconciled myself that the trip not was not happening.”
Her visa finally issued the afternoon of the day before her departure, and was delivered to her door a mere four hours before her flight. “I was going to India!” she recalled.
Dr. O’Brien knew this trip was going to be the perfect introduction to India, with a good cause attached. She would be giving vaccines to children up to five years of age as part of an “End Polio Now” campaign.
Polio, a viral disease acquired by the fecal-oral route that can cause paralysis, was last documented in the United States in 1979. It is still endemic only in Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and Nigeria. “India experiences approximately 850 new cases each year, and it is a totally preventable disease,” Dr. O’Brien said.
The group traveling to India was made up of 37 Rotary members, one of whom was Dr. O’Brien. The group included participants from the United States, Australia, Finland and Norway. Three were from Mobile, and a news broadcaster and his camera man from Buenos Aires were along to film a documentary.
In Delhi, the group visited the manufacturer of the oral vaccines, as well as a local World Health Organization office. All were keenly aware of the extreme poverty and lack of sanitary conditions that are so prevalent in India.
The group later headed north toward their NID assignment in the city of Chandigarh. In route, they stopped off at a Rotary Club in Pandipat for an anti-polio rally by the local school children. After attending the anti-polio events, the group members met their assigned Rotary host families.
Dr. O’Brien stayed with Mr. and Mrs. Mattaro for four nights, a Sikh host family, who spoke English well but whose primary language is Hindi.
“It was so breathtaking to experience a culture that is so different and to live with a family through their day to day lives,” Dr. O’Brien said. “My time with my host family was another unique facet of the experience.”
On NID, the group members were assigned, with their Rotary hosts and young volunteers, to distribution sites where they gave each infant two drops of vaccine by mouth and then marked the left pinky finger with a purple marker.
“Wearing the Rotary-issued bright yellow vest, I took marker duty for the site, and we vaccinated more than 100 children that day,” Dr. O’Brien said. “The young volunteers I worked with could understand but not speak English; they taught me to count to 10 in Hindi.”
The next two mornings, they were individually assigned to two young health care workers to go door-to-door to find unimmunized infants and administer the drops. English was rarely spoken. “I observed abysmal living conditions, but always cheerful and grateful faces,” Dr. O’Brien said.
The group also visited a number of hospitals and schools supported by Rotary clubs. Toward the end of the trip, the group spent two nights in Delhi and then made one final stop to Agra to see the Taj Mahal.
Dr. O’Brien said it wasn’t the actual “doing” that made the entire experience. “It was the contact with the people and the gratitude that they expressed,” she said. “It was the tears in my host family’s eyes on the morning I was leaving their home and the bonding with my fellow Rotarians.”
“The experience was so multi-layered and enriching; it has had a profound impact on my life.”