For the uninitiated, walking down the narrow corridors of any public hospital in Bangladesh can be a difficult experience, where you will almost certainly see patients lying on floors outside overcrowded wards, and families desperately trying to find the resources to run basic tests and purchase medication. At the Paediatric Hemotology and Oncology of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University (BSMMU), home to the child cancer patients of the hospital, it is almost impossible to walk through without a lump forming in your throat. Despite your best intentions, your first instinct will be to block out the cries from behind closed doors, or look away from the silent suffering on the parents' faces, who sit next to the tiny beds, doing whatever they can to make the little ones a bit more comfortable, a bit less in pain.
But there are some who don't turn away. A team of eight volunteers from different backgrounds have been dedicatedly working in the Paediatric Hemotology and Oncology department since June, 2014, as a part of a social action project titled 'For a Bit of Smile'. Operating under the British Council's Active Citizens Programme, this group of youngsters spend at least one day a week trying to bring a smile to the faces of children suffering with cancer, as well as reach out to their families and help them through their difficult times. In addition, the volunteers also devote their energy to raising awareness regarding child cancer through awareness programmes and school visits.
Awareness is crucial
“We started off with wanting to do something for those who really need it, and we wanted a platform from where we can make a positive contribution to society, which was provided by the British Council,” explains Sumaiya Akter, co-founder and coordinator of the 'For a Bit of Smile' project.
While there are many such projects run by young people across the city, what made this special is that it has endured – no matter what, the core volunteers have continued to give their services whenever it was needed at the department, under the leadership of Prof Md Afiqul Islam.
“Our main aim here is to give care to the children, and while my team and I specialise in providing medical care and therapy, there is also a need for supportive care, and an important part of this is to also focus on the parents and help them to cope with these conditions. The volunteers who come here play a role in this – standing by the parents and giving them courage,” shares Prof Islam.
“Another important role they play is in spreading awareness. The problem is, many people still consider cancer to be a death sentence, and a lot of people also do not even know that children can get cancer. It is really important to get these messages out, and to assure people that cancer is curable; in fact, children are more likely than adults to survive cancer,” he added.
Against this backdrop, the project's team has been working to organise events and disseminate information about child cancer at different schools and colleges, as well as provide suggestions about lifestyles and food habits that could help prevent it. Within the wards, they also provide information to parents of affected children on how to maintain the best hygienic conditions, since patients are at high risk of contracting infections, especially after receiving chemotherapy.
The biggest obstacles are financial
However, one of the core activities of the group are to spend time with the children themselves.
“Obviously, it is difficult for them to be here, and chemotherapy and spinal injections can be very painful for the children. We have a small play area in the corner of the ward, and the volunteers do their best to play with the children, involve them in activities, and just talk to them and try and make them smile,” says Prof Islam.
While this mental and emotional support is necessary and often ignored for patients and their families, the biggest obstacle faced by the department is always financial. Their research suggests that there are plenty of families who refuse treatment once they realise cancer, firstly because of the misconception that it is not treatable, but also because of a lack of funds to afford it.
“It's really sad, how much the families struggle to come up with the resources. That is why although we mainly focus now on non-financial support, we have also been trying very hard to raise funds for treatment,” says Fatimatul Botol, Adviser for 'A Bit of Smile' and project coordinator at Democracywatch.
“At the end of the day, we don't want to just donate some toys and post some pictures on Facebook. Our involvement is hands-on, and we will ensure that this project continues no matter what, because the smiles on the faces of these children is better than any reward,” adds Sumaiya Akter.
To learn more, visit: https://www.facebook.com/forabitofsmile/?fref=ts