Hospital on wheels brings hope to Indian villages

Hospital on wheels brings hope to Indian villages

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Bhawri Devi, an illiterate Indian labourer, thought she was dying when she started to lose her hearing last month.

She went to a government hospital near her remote village in the western state of Rajasthan to be treated, but it did not have a specialist doctor.

. Jalore, India. Reuters/Danish Siddiqui
Devi rests on the floor of her house after her surgery.

The nearest private hospital was in the neighbouring state of Gujarat, and Devi was told her treatment, middle ear surgery, would cost about 50,000 rupees ($766) there.

"I didn't even have 5,000 rupees," said Devi, 41, who returned in despair to her home in Jalore.

Days later came news of visiting specialists who would treat her for free.

. Jalore, India. Reuters/Danish Siddiqui
The Lifeline Express is parked at a railway station.

They arrived in early April as volunteers on the Lifeline Express, a seven-coach train converted into a rolling hospital that has crisscrossed India for 27 years to treat people like Devi living in areas with scarce healthcare.

Lifeline Express has treated about 1.2 million people since its launch in 1991 by the non-profit Impact India Foundation, said chief operating officer and doctor Rajnish Gourh.

. Jalore, India. Reuters/Danish Siddiqui
Patients wait for their dental checkup onboard the Lifeline Express.

In a country that spends just one percent of its gross domestic product on healthcare, among the world's lowest, the hospital on wheels fills a critical gap.

Like Devi, India's poor are caught between relying on a crumbling public health system trusted by few, or selling meagre assets to fund private treatment.

. Jalore, India. Reuters/Danish Siddiqui
A ward inside a government Primary Health Centre.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government launched a scheme in February that aims to widen health insurance coverage to 500 million people, but critics say the plan is unlikely to work unless public health systems improve dramatically.

Until then, options such as Lifeline Express offer crucial support.

. Jalore, India. Reuters/Danish Siddiqui
Patients and their relatives wait before the start of surgery.

Decorated with mahogany flower garlands, the sky-blue train parked at the sleepy station in Jalore could be mistaken for a new passenger train. Its medical facilities would rival many Indian public hospitals.

. Jalore, India. Reuters/Danish Siddiqui
Doctors perform surgery inside the Lifeline Express.

It employs 20 permanent paramedic staff, with most doctors volunteering from nearby medical colleges or hospitals.

Typically, it spends a month in a district, performing surgery ranging from cataracts and cancer to cleft palates and orthopaedics.

The aim is not to compete with India's public health system, but support it. "We cannot have a hundred Lifeline Expresses in the country," said Gourh.

However, a second train will be launched in the next six months to cover the north and northeast, he added.

Railways Minister Piyush Goyal agreed to provide the second train at a meeting with Lifeline Express officials in February, Gourh said. The rail ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

. Jalore, India. Reuters/Danish Siddiqui
Volunteers from the National Cadet Corps wait to guide patients on the Lifeline Express.

The train gives volunteer doctors and medical students an opportunity to hone their skills while doing satisfying community work.

"Because we are working at the grassroots, we are exposed to different kinds of diseases," said volunteer doctor Mehak Sikka. "You get to learn more."

. Jalore, India. Reuters/Danish Siddiqui
A doctor performs surgery on the Lifeline Express.

For patients like Devi, free treatment averts what could otherwise be a lifetime of suffering or death.

Feeling indebted to the young surgeon who treated her, Devi, clad in a bright yellow saree, joined her hands in respect before the doctor drew her into a warm embrace.

. Jalore, India. Reuters/Danish Siddiqui
Devi travels home in a train after her surgery.

"I am glad that I will be able to hear my grandchildren's voices," Devi said, with a smile. "I won't go deaf."

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Slideshow

People wait for transport.
. Jalore, India. Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

People wait for transport.

Auto-rickshaws leave a railway station.
. Jalore, India. Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

Auto-rickshaws leave a railway station.

A  woman speaks on the phone outside her house.
. Jalore, India. Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

A woman speaks on the phone outside her house.

A man milks goats.
. Jalore, India. Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

A man milks goats.

A woman leaves a government Primary Health Centre.
. Jalore, India. Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

A woman leaves a government Primary Health Centre.

A medicine distribution counter.
. Jalore, India. Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

A medicine distribution counter.

A woman  is administered an IV drip inside a government Primary Health Centre.
. Jalore, India. Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

A woman is administered an IV drip inside a government Primary Health Centre.

A man is administered an IV drip inside the house of an unregistered medical professional.
. Jalore, India. Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

A man is administered an IV drip inside the house of an unregistered medical professional.

A passenger stands in the door of a train.
. Jalore, India. Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

A passenger stands in the door of a train.

Patients register themselves to be screened by doctors from the Lifeline Express.
. Jalore, India. Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

Patients register themselves to be screened by doctors from the Lifeline Express.

Movan, 77, gets ready to leave for her cataract surgery on the Lifeline Express. "I am never going to forget the name of this train, never in my life," she said.
. Jalore, India. Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

Movan, 77, gets ready to leave for her cataract surgery on the Lifeline Express. "I am never going to forget the name of this train, never in my life," she said.

Doctors perform surgery on the Lifeline Express.
. Jalore, India. Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

Doctors perform surgery on the Lifeline Express.

A patient goes through surgery inside the Lifeline Express.
. Jalore, India. Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

A patient goes through surgery inside the Lifeline Express.

Patients leave an operation theatre after their surgery inside the Lifeline Express.
. Jalore, India. Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

Patients leave an operation theatre after their surgery inside the Lifeline Express.

Patients rest after their surgery on the Lifeline Express.
. Jalore, India. Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

Patients rest after their surgery on the Lifeline Express.

Halewale, 52, watches news on his mobile phone inside the Lifeline Express.
. Jalore, India. Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

Halewale, 52, watches news on his mobile phone inside the Lifeline Express.

Sanjay, 28, makes lunch inside the Lifeline Express.
. Jalore, India. Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

Sanjay, 28, makes lunch inside the Lifeline Express.

Employees eat their lunch inside the Lifeline Express.
. Jalore, India. Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

Employees eat their lunch inside the Lifeline Express.

A television screen in the staff resting area on the Lifeline Express.
. Jalore, India. Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

A television screen in the staff resting area on the Lifeline Express.