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Turning the tide

  • Published at 06:42 pm September 13th, 2018
WT_Sept 13, 2018
Photo: Courtesy

How a Bangladeshi NGO is using floating hospitals to take medical care to the people surrounded by water

In this past week ‘Friendship’ retired one of its hospital ships: Rongdhonu Friendship Hospital (RFH). After being active on the seas and waters across many different regions for 61 years, among which eight years in Bangladesh, Friendship bid farewell to the Rongdhonu ship and the floating hospital it housed on it. But it’s not because the NGO is retiring from taking healthcare to the marginalized. 

Building floating hospitals will make complete sense to anyone that looks at a map of Bangladesh. It makes even more sense considering how little access people in the remote and particularly char areas have to healthcare; with emergency care virtually non-existent to the vast majority of the people.

That’s exactly why Bangladeshi NGO Friendship started three floating hospitals on three ships: to take healthcare to remote areas in Bangladesh, particularly those in the North and South of the country, where chars are innumerable and people are cut off from sadar hospitals, which are located in the towns and often serve as the only destinations for medical care. “We needed to do something immediately for the people. Back then, to build 7-10 hospitals was impossible for us. So, we needed a hospital ship which had everything in it,” said Runa Khan, founder and executive director at Friendship.

In the 1990s, Yves Marre - French entrepreneur, inventor, adventurer and co-founder of Friendship - sailed a river barge from France to donate it for use by the people of Bangladesh. The barge was converted into Friendship’s first floating hospital. The NGO later launched  two more such ships and converted them into floating hospitals that go out every few months to reach people in the river island areas or chars, where isolated communities live in poverty and without access to the most basic medical services. A lot of the times, a relatively simple operation is all that is needed to save or dramatically improve a life. That is precisely what Lifebuoy, Emirates and now retired Rongdhonu set out to do.

Lifebuoy Friendship Hospital, Friendship’s first hospital ship, was launched in 2002 with support from donors such as Unilever and Canadian International Development Agency. Emirates Friendship Hospital, donation from the airline company Emirates, was inaugurated in 2008. Both ships are still operating in the Northern river areas of Bangladesh, and together they treat on average a hundred thousand patients every year.

The retired ship, Rongdhonu operated on the South. “Over the last five years as the Rongdhonu Friendship Hospital, it has treated over 163,000 patients on board, performing more than 8,500 surgical interventions, often life saving operations, always bringing back to them quality of life and hope,” Runa Khan said.

“RFH was a hospital for the under-served and hard to reach population of the coastal belt,” said Dr Abul Hasnath Rafi, Program Specialist (Hospital Services) at Friendship. One of the main strategic purposes of RFH was to strengthen the health network of Friendship’s hospital services, which - apart from the floating hospitals - include satellite clinics and other outreach services.

“Now RFH has build that strong network, and yes, it will of course have an impact,” Dr Rafi said. The ship was equipped to provide tertiary level surgeries, like reconstructive, gynecological, orthopedic, pediatric surgeries. These services will now be provided in Friendship’s land hospital in Shyamnagar, Dr Rafi further informed.

Unlike the RFH, the care in the land hospital and static clinics will not be given for free, but they will be made as affordable as possible. However, the founder of the NGO Runa Khan says that “The people of the coastal belt are not forgotten. We continue in their service and move together to a new future.” To fill the void, Friendship will set up new medical services on the land. 

“When we were on the jetty, people were asking whether Friendship would bring another floating hospital, and that RHF was a blessing for them. It’s heartbreaking for them that they won’t be able to see RFH again, but on the other hand we are working to set up five static clinics in Hatia, Kuakata, Chalna, Mongla and Kutubdia,” Dr Rafi said.

“Once we have a static clinic, and once we have established a proper referral services, there might not be a need for a floating hospital. But if there is a need, and there is enough funding available, then of course, we would consider another ship,” he added, referring to employing another ship on the Southern region where RHF was active.

The other two ships, however, continue to provide healthcare to the people living in the chars on the North and five more ships are currently under construction. These five ships are set to launch as floating hospitals to provide medical care across the riverine network of Bangladesh.