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AccessLife’s Manipal Center: A haven for pediatric cancer warriors

BY VEENA RAO

Atlanta, GA, February 22, 2024: A couple of minutes’ walk from Manipal Hospital’s Comprehensive Cancer Care Centre is a cozy home with an exuberant flower garden and a colorful carpeted play area. A pre-teen seated at a table smiles at us and points in the direction of the office, where Annette Kairanna, Centre Manager, welcomes us with a warm smile.

This is AccessLife’s Manipal Center in Manipal, India, where ten to twelve young cancer warriors and their parents reside during their cancer treatment. They are at various stages of their treatment, but what is common among them is their camaraderie and playful spirit.

What becomes apparent to me during the next hour is not only the resilience of those who are housed at the center but also the tireless efforts of those who have dedicated themselves to providing a lifeline to underprivileged families during their most challenging period.

L to R: The writer’s mother Suguna Rao, the writer, Annette Kairana, and Dr. Vasudeva Bhat.

The space is designed with the well-being of the young patients and their families in mind. Annette leads us through the individual units, each equipped with a double bed for the child and mother, extra bedding for an additional family member, a cupboard neatly stocked with basic amenities, and a large common recreational area. The modern kitchen has six individual stoves for families to cook their meals so the children get hygienic, fresh food cooked the way they are used to. There is a common area where the families eat dinner together in a communal spirit. The area is also where the kids get informal education during their time away from school.

“We have volunteers who teach the kids arts and crafts. We have story sessions. The volunteers also take care of their studies and homework,” says Annette.

The granite washing stones in the backyard were put up at the request of the families, but there are washing machines for heavier clothes.

The little cancer warriors with their families, Dr. Vasudeva Bhat and the visitors. The children showcase their artistic talents by welcoming the visitors with paper flowers and cards.

Annette affectionately describes the families as a “family” to her. The atmosphere is one of support, where emotional well-being is as crucial as physical health. There is a dedicated room for counseling and online sessions for children, ensuring their mental health is tended to throughout their stay.

We are taken to the units, where we greet and chat with the children and their parents. Outside every room is a cancer warrior’s name, date of birth, and picture so they feel like it is their comfort zone. The families are from the small towns and hinterlands of Karnataka, but what binds them is their shared struggles and hope.

The visitors are taken on a tour of the units.

Halfway through our tour, we are greeted by Dr. Vasudeva Bhat, Associate Professor and In-charge Head, Division of Pediatric Hematology and Oncology and Deputy Coordinator, Manipal Comprehensive Cancer Care Centre. Dr. Bhat met the founders of AccessLife in 2014 and has been associated with the foundation since then. When he returned to his roots in Manipal in 2019, he was instrumental in getting Manipal University to support AccessLife.

The pediatric oncologist reveals the initial challenges faced when the Manipal Center was established in 2019. “Many patients could not afford treatment. Around 10 to 15% dropped out just because they didn’t have the money. So, we arranged finances for them. Even then, the dropouts remained because the out-of-pocket expenditure was still very high. For instance, in Manipal, a single room costs INR 8000, plus food, plus transport to the hospital. It all adds up to INR 15,000 to 16,000 per month. We were providing treatment, but they did not have the means to survive for 4-6 months in Manipal city.”

Dr. Bhat passionately emphasizes that AccessLife’s mission is to ensure no child is lost due to financial constraints. Another benefit of staying in a clean environment and eating hygienic food is that the cancer warriors are less prone to infections. “The university provides the facility rent-free to AccessLife, plus electricity and water connection,” Dr. Bhat explains. AccessLife takes care of operational expenses, staff salaries, monthly ration, and housekeeping, creating a sustainable model that enables families to focus on their child’s treatment.

With 51 families having found refuge here since its inception, AccessLife’s Manipal Center is now looking towards expansion. “The university has been very kind to us,” Dr. Bhat says. “We have been given almost an acre of land. We are planning to expand to a 35-unit facility which will be located 3-4 kms away. So, we will definitely need to arrange transportation. We also plan to retain this facility for patients of bone marrow transplants.”

Access Life Foundation was founded in 2014 with one center in Mumbai that housed eight children and their families, according to their website. Over the past ten years, they have added six more centers: three in Mumbai, one each in Pune, Chandigarh, Bengaluru, and Manipal. The centers cater to pediatric cancer patients who come to these metro cities from all over India to receive treatment at hospitals like Tata Memorial Hospital, PGI, Deenanath Mangeshkar Hospital, and Manipal Comprehensive Cancer Care Center.

The centers now accommodate 120 children and their families to serve a total of around 300 lives.

The Atlanta Chapter of AccessLife and the other chapters around the US primarily act as the fundraising arm of AccessLife Foundation, although some local programs exist.

The Manipal Center stands testament to the foundation’s vision, providing not just accommodation but a holistic haven where hope thrives, and the spirit of these young warriors continues to shine.

For more information, or to support AccessLife, please visit Access Life America.

If you are in the Atlanta area, please consider attending AccessLife America’s upcoming fundraising event:
(2) Bollywood Beats for Access Life America | Facebook

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