Monday, July 9, 2012

Ride of your life: Sustaining impact in the developing world

Two weeks ago, a friend in Pakistan passionately claimed that Bombay is the most exciting city in the world. Although I mostly agreed, I quickly realized that excitement wears multiple faces, as 3 near-catastrophes unfolded 24 hours within my arrival here: first a bicycle side-clip by my taxi from the airport, then a fender-bender going to work, and finally a near (i.e., 12 inches short) head-on bus collision by my rickshaw driver.

Fortunately, everyone walked away safely, this time. Tragically, however, 114,000 people each year never walk away at all: In India, at least 13 people die every hour on the road. The country has the highest rate of accidents – 35 per 1,000 vehicles compared to the world average of 4 – resulting in more Indians dying than from HIV, malaria, and cholera combined.

For this reason, 1298 Ambulance – the social enterprise I am working with this summer – has launched one of the country’s first ambulance services, with the Gandhi-inspired philosophy that 
Saving a life is one of the most rewarding experiences a person can undergo. 
Over the past 7 years, they’ve amassed a fleet of rewards, launching 860 ambulances and transferring over 1 million patients.

Despite this success, suffering (and death) seem to be an inescapable reality of life here.

Three days into my project, I wondered aimlessly around the emergency room of a public hospital in Central Mumbai. Surrounded by pain, I speechlessly returned to the stretcher that carried Sweta Sendil, a 29-year-old teacher whose relatives dialed 1298 after she had a kidney failure. Only one year older than me, and yet she was given a 2-3 year life expectancy.

These are the days where heaven does not seem so close. Days where it seems that no matter how much you sacrifice, it’ll never be enough. Days that test whether you can really sustain a life dedicated to alleviating injustice without disconnecting from the associated suffering.

Although I’m not sure answers exist, these are questions and emotions that I’m hoping to explore further this summer. Most likely from the backseat of a 1298 Ambulance.