Dr. Narendra Singh, chief of pediatrics at Humber River Hospital, only intended to take in a cricket game on a trip to his native Guyana a few years ago.
Instead, that match led to him setting up a program that is saving the lives of babies and children by providing education and medical facilities.
“It was purely accidental. I’m a huge cricket fan, being from a British colony. I went back four or five years ago to watch a cricket game,” said Singh, who grew up on the grounds of the hospital in the capital city of Georgetown where his father was the administrator.
“And after that (game), I thought, ‘Let me check out my old stomping ground,’ which is the hospital.”
While visiting, the chiefs of staff and pediatrics invited him to tour the pediatric ward and neo-natal intensive care unit (NICU).
Singh was dismayed.
In the pediatric ward, where infection control practices were basically non-existent, about 50 children were being treated in one large room crammed with makeshift beds.
Some babies in the NICU were cared for in wooden boxes. The unit’s few incubators weren’t working.
Equipment such as intravenous pumps and monitors were unavailable.
“Being chief of pediatrics at a hospital here in Toronto, looking at the standard of care we provide for our children and looking at the standard of care for kids from a country where I’m from, I was pretty devastated,” Singh said.
He grew up in Guyana, on the northern coast of South America, until the age of 14.
His family came to Canada in 1973 to escape political troubles, worries about the education system and safety concerns for the family.
In the mid-1990s, Singh began visiting his homeland every few years,
Those vacations didn’t prepare him for the substandard facilities he witnessed at the hospital.
“It’s like the world moved ahead and they kind of got left behind,” he said.
“I look at some of the moms there and I see the babies in their hands and I think, ‘This could be me, this could be my wife. These could be my kids.’ It was hard to swallow.”
Singh is quick to stress the doctors and nurses were providing the best care they could with the limited resources they had.
“We’re not blaming them for not providing optimum care,” he said.
“Under the circumstances, under which they had to work, they were doing a very, very good job. If I was under those conditions, I don’t think I could do as good a job.”
Singh launched Guyana Help the Kids (GHTK), a registered Canadian charity that is holding its annual fundraising dinner and dance in Toronto Oct. 5.
Although some in Guyana welcomed the charity’s help, others resented its presence and questioned its motives.
“We had to exercise a tremendous amount of diplomacy when we went back. We had to walk on eggs for a while, until we proved ourselves,” Singh said.
“(The naysayers said) ‘You feel you have gone abroad for 34 years and you’ve trained and you know more than we do? I don’t think so. You can’t be doing this just out of the goodness of your heart. You must be getting something out of this.’ And once you go beyond that and you prove them wrong, they are definitely on side.”
From the outset, education was at the heart of GHTK so Guyanese doctors and nurses could be trained to care for their own patients.
Singh worked with Guyanese hospital and university officials and the minister of health to establish a pediatric residency program for doctors.
Doctors from the University of Toronto, McMaster University and universities in the U.S. travel monthly to Guyana to train physicians there.
Meanwhile, the first 11 nurses graduated from a neo-natal nursing program two months ago set up by GHTK and 20 more will begin in November.
In March 2012, a 24-bed, fully equipped NICU opened at the Georgetown hospital.
In its first year, infant mortality dropped by 50 per cent, meaning 80 babies are alive today who may otherwise have died.
Three months ago, two NICU units opened at smaller hospitals and two more are expected next year.
GHTK has brought technology to the Georgetown hospital through a virtual classroom and virtual medical consultations.
After learning children with leukemia could only be treated abroad if their parents could afford it, the charity facilitated a partnership through the Buffalo Children’s Hospital to begin a pediatric cancer care program.
Singh is thrilled to see the difference GHTK has made to the care of babies and youngsters in Guyana.
He learned that a Canadian official touring the Georgetown hospital six months ago referred to the pediatric ward and the NICU as “an oasis in the middle of the desert.”
For more information, visit www.GuyanaHelpTheKids.com