Trip of a lifetime

Published 5:45 pm Thursday, March 3, 2005

By By RANDI K. PICKLEY / Niles Daily Star
NILES - Corey Brazo has enough special memories to last a lifetime.
Corey works for Signal Travel and Tours, Inc. at 219 E. Main Street in Niles. He recently became part of a group of volunteers who went to India to help give polio immunizations to the children of that country. "It was somewhere I always wanted to travel to," he said.
The immunization program is sponsored by Rotary International, whose mission is to eradicate the polio virus in Third World countries like India. Brazo recently became involved with the Rotary project through Dan and Barb Groner of Dowagiac who have used Signal Travel to plan their itinerary for this annual project.
For the first few years, the project targeted countries in Africa, but has expanded to include India. Volunteers stay mostly in hotels in various cities in India, although a brief home-stay is also involved.
During their most recent trip in February, Brazo and his fellow volunteers first day was spent visiting the city of New Delhi, the capital of India (found in its north central region.)
Brazo's first impression was a little overwhelming. He said, "It was much more than I expected. You have to see it to believe it. There was no way I could come home and describe it to anybody."
The city of New Delhi is home to about 14 million people. The city streets are packed full of cars, trucks, buses, bicycles, and, yes, cows. Cattle are considered sacred animals in India and are protected. Although they are allowed to roam free, everyone is careful not to harm them.
The next port-of-call was Jaipur. Brazo enjoyed visiting the "Amber Fort" that is situated on a very large hill. Brazo found the transportation up to the fort a bit unusual, however. "I had to ride an elephant to get there," he said.
The next city on the tour was Agra, where the Taj Mahal is located. Brazo was impressed with the detailed work that decorates the building. Intricate designs and shapes are worked with tiny pieces of marble and precious stones throughout the entire structure. "We only spent a few hours there," he said. " There just wasn't enough time to see all of it. We had to move on to the next stop."
That stop was Varanasi, considered a "holy city" because the River Ganges runs through it. The river is at the center of daily religious practices for the population, particularly those of the Hindu faith.
Prayers are said along its banks twice a day.
Brazo's group arrived in time for evening prayers. They took a boat down the river to watch the throngs of worshippers climb down the "ghats" (steps) and float small bowls filled with flowers and lit candles in the water. The bowls were sold by children to the crowd, costing 20 to 30 rupees each.
The river is also where funerals take place. Cremation is the standard funerary custom and the bodies are burned outside in the open air along the banks of the river. Then the ashes are scattered onto the water' surface.
The following morning Brazo attended morning prayers as well. Again, he witnessed the importance of the Ganges in the religious life of its residents. Prayers and ritual bathing are done in its waters each morning along with more practical needs like washing clothes. Yet the river also serves as the local sewer, so contamination from feces in the water is a continual threat.
When asked about being different in appearance from the crowds of Indian worshippers, Brazo said, "They were intrigued by us. Most people there speak enough English to say hello. People will look at you and smile or nod."
Faridabad, which is about 12 miles outside New Delhi, was the next stop for the volunteers. Although they only had to travel about that short distance to get there, it took well over an hour to reach Faridabad because the roads are so crowded with throngs of travelers.
In Faridibad they were able to stay in a host family's home. "The food was very good," Brazo mentioned. "It was typical Indian food. We ate a lot of chicken and what they call "mutton", which is really goat meat. We also ate a lot of vegetable dishes and tofu (bean curd). Everything was spicy."
Brazo said when they ate meals at the hotels in which they stayed, he felt the management "toned down" the heat on spicy dishes to help the Americans adjust. But when he stayed with his host family, he said, "We asked for the standard Indian cooking, what the family usually ate. It wasn't too hot for us."
Brazo said he had heard that in India there is no middle class; only the wealthy and the very poor. The family he stayed with had five servants to take care of only four family members. He felt that definitely put them in the wealthy category.
When Brazo arrived at their home, he experienced the traditional "bindi" welcome. According to him, "In India, a guest is like a god," as the saying goes. The bindi ceremony was performed by the family's youngest daughter who presented the guests with a tray of bowls filled with flowers and candles, then used a special red paste to place the "bindi", or small red dot of paste, on their foreheads. It is meant to wish the guest prosperity.
Before he and his fellow volunteers arrived, the host family was given a biography of each guest and a photo of them so that their hospitality could be personalized to each volunteer. They were treated to large meals and trips to local events such as a handicraft fair and a regional talent show.
At last the Rotary group came to their most important destination. It was time to distribute the polio vaccine.
As the group set up the immunization site in a small hospital centered in a very poor area whose residents needed access to low cost health care, they wore bright yellow t-shirts and hats to catch the attention of the local community. Then they moved through the neighborhoods, knocking on each door and explaining, through an interpreter, the purpose of their visit.
Awareness of of health issues in an impoverished society can be just as important as the actual immunizations, according to Brazo.
The polio vaccine used in this project is in liquid form and is given as drops in the mouth. Only children five and under receive the medicine because past that age, their intestinal walls are more resistant to absorption of the polio virus.
Only two drops of the vaccine is given to each child and it only takes one small vial of the medicine to immunize 200 children. "Children didn't really know what the drops were that they were getting." They were to interested in the little gifts that they received once they were immunized. The Rotary group provided pieces of candy and small plastic whistles to give the children. From the children's reaction to the treats, Brazo said the gifts might have been, "one of the best things they ever received in their lives."
It was a moving experience for him when a mother would bring an infant to Corey to receive the vaccine. He would place the drops of medicine carefully in the baby's mouth, being careful not to touch its lips with his fingers so that cross-contamination would not affect the child. "Sometimes a father would bring his children as well," Brazo remembered.
He said that in some of the more rural locations, "We did have a little trouble with some of the Muslim population. There was a rumor over there that the polio vaccine made children sterile," and parents were leery of the drops. "But the volunteers would explain that their own children had taken the vaccine and were fine, and they wanted the Indian children to be safe, too." That usually seemed to convince the parents and their children were allowed to receive the immunization. Brazo said, "And when the other children saw that the immunized children had whistles and candy, they came running to get theirs."
According to Brazo, polio causes the muscles of the body to contract so strongly that, "their legs begin to fold up underneath them. They often wear rubber flip-flops (sandals) on their hands so they can use their arms to drag their torsos along the ground," because they can't walk or even stand up. it is not only painful, but cripples the child through adulthood.
Polio is a permanent condition once it is contracted.
Brazo explains, "Once you've got it, you've got it."
There is hope for the victims of this disease, though, in the form of corrective surgery clinics. Brazo's group visited one of the clinics. He explains, "It was a small facility with one recovery room of about 12 to 15 beds and an operating room with two tables." Two people could receive surgery at the same time.
The purpose of the surgery is to cut the tendons in the legs so the patient's legs are able to be straightened and fitted with braces. It allows the patient the chance to walk again. While at the clinic, Brazo's group passed around a hat and collected enough money to provide over 700 more corrective surgeries.
Another clinic that the Rotary group visited was the "Foot Factory" in Jaipur. Because public transportation is so overwhelmed by a large population, it is common for people to fall from overcrowded trains and need to have crushed limbs amputated. The "Foot Factory" builds and fits artificial arms and legs for such people. This program is also sponsored by Rotary International.
Of his experiences in India, Brazo replies, "It was an incredible trip. You have to see it to comprehend what it's like." And thanks to the world-wide efforts of Rotary International, the World Health Organization, and volunteers like Corey Brazo, polio is, in many countries, reduced to "only a handful of cases per year." "But," as Corey emphasizes, "A handful is still too many."