Raglan-based podiatrist Janet Murphy is proud of the changes she helped bring about during a recent volunteering stint at a leprosy clinic in India.

Originally from Cork in Ireland, Janet spent three months earlier this year working at the Calcutta Rescue charity’s Chitpur Clinic in the vast and very poor Indian city of Kolkata (formerly known as Calcutta), returning from her travels last month.

She first visited the leprosy clinic in 2000 as a newly qualified podiatrist during her travels, after reading about it at university and being inspired by the work of Calcutta Rescue founder Dr Jack Preger.

It was a ramshackle clinic at a truck stop on the edge of the Howrah River and at the time she felt ill equipped to offer much to the clinic. She was also hospitalised due to illness so she didn’t last long. “But it has been on my mind ever since.”

Fifteen years later, as a fully qualified podiatrist and with much experience in diabetics and amputations behind her, Janet returned to the Chitpur Clinic as a podiatrist with very much to offer.

She provided cross-infection education at the clinic, training both staff and patients in basic hygiene practices, such as getting staff to change gloves and sterilise equipment between patients.

She also dressed horrific wounds on the feet and hands of patients, and even helped make sandals and shoes for their deformed feet.
“There was a big emphasis on responding to individual needs and responding to any suffering,” Janet says.

India is home to about half the world’s estimated 250,000 leprosy survivors. The disease, which can have a three to 30 year incubation period, is caused by a bacteria thought to be spread through nasal droplets and prolonged close contact with leprosy survivors.

The Indian government is trying to educate its population that the disease is easily treatable with antibiotics. Patients are no longer infectious after a month’s treatment.

Janet says about 95 percent of the population is thought to have natural immunity to the bacteria and most people who contract leprosy have other risk factors such as a poor diet, polluted water or other immune-compromising health problems.

Leprosy causes irreversible nerve damage to the limbs, which leads to numbness, weakness and an inability to feel pain. This means patients can easily injure themselves, which can lead to the deformity and disability that are characteristic of the untreated disease. Untreated infections can also lead to death.

Janet says the deformities are often why leprosy survivors are ostracised from their communities and end up on the streets, with begging being the main way for lepers to earn a living.

“That is why this charity is so important, they get treated with dignity and like normal human beings.”
An integral part of care is helping meet social and financial needs as well, so barriers stopping patients getting treatment are overcome. The charity gives patients food and vitamins, cooking oil, money for transport and clothing, subsidies rent and funds walking sticks, wheelchairs and prosthetics.

Sometimes patients can be reluctant to have an amputation because they have a family to look after and they can’t afford the NZ$7 a day fee that hospitals charge in India – the leprosy hospital in Kolkata being preferred over the Indian public hospitals.

“If you have to go the public hospital, god forbid, there’s rats there, there’s faeces there, you may not get a bed – you have to bribe your way into a bed,” Janet explains.

Understandably, Chitpur Clinic patients are very grateful for help.

“There was an acknowledgement that without this service, they would have had no where else to turn. Most of the leprosy patients at the Chitpur clinic had experienced being rejected by family and friends having been viewed as diseased or tainted.”

As a woman in a male-dominated society and as the only foreigner at the clinic, she says her work was not “a walk in the park” and changes did not happen overnight, but she is pleased with what she achieved in her three months there.

She paid for a lot of equipment for the clinic herself, including an ultrasonic cleaner, and some stainless steel trolleys for the wound dressing stations, replacing rusty instruments and fixing the steriliser.

Janet knows other people from Raglan who have done charity work in India and says she has met a lot of inspiring people in India as well who are dedicating their lives to helping others.

“You hear a lot about Mother Teresa, but there’s a lot more people out there doing more amazing stuff and they never get any acknowledgement,” she says.
Janet hopes to return there at a later stage in her life, but is for now, happy to be reestablishing her life and career here.

Rachel Benn
To find out more, get involved or donate see the Calcutta Rescue website at: http://www.calcuttarescue.org/