They were seven in number, ranging from three to twelve years in age. Young, innocent, full of childhood dreams but weak and sick by the hands of a disease, the very name of which makes even adults shivered – Cancer.

It is the new Oncology ward, a part of the massive Oncology and Bone Marrow Transplant Unit at the National Institute of Child Health (NICH), Karachi. Bright and warm, the entire wing is occupied with the energy of little angelic souls and dedicated staff.Its glossy aluminium doors and windows, stainless floors and vibrantly painted walls by some pensive Indus Valley students, that portray a child’s dream world in rainbow colours, make it apart from the rest of the hospital.

One can feel the sincerity and spirit with which such an exclusive project has been started by the Child Aid Association. It is an NGO which is working for the needy and sick children at NICH since 1979, providing them free medicines, blood donations, supplement food and costly life-saving equipment to the hospital.
Wholly funded by some philanthropic citizens, members of various associations and drug industry, the CAA has decided to establish the first Oncology and Bone Marrow Transplant Unit for children in the country in 1995.
Talking about the project, Prof. Nizamul Hasan, president of the CAA said “Our organization has sponsored many children for Bone Marrow Transplant abroad in the past. It costs around 60,000 dollars in the United States of America and 6 to 7 lacks in India. So we thought `why not introduce the treatment at home with less expenses and more convenience?’

It’s the combined effort of Dr. Khalid Zafar & his team and the generosity of the Karachiites that make the project a reality at the cost of 12 million rupees.
Around 2,220,000 rupees were spent at the construction of the wing and it was equipped with 3,767,000 rupees. “Ninety percent of the contribution comes from the benevolent individuals, the rest from the multinationals”, said Dr. Nizam proudly.

The Oncology ward was inaugurated in April 1999 with its first six-year-old patient, Zohaib, suffering from Leukaemia. Besides the unit is running a Day Care Unit since Dec. 1998 where children receive Chemotherapy and a follow-up section where they come for regular check ups after they discharge from the hospital because it is essential for them.

Cancer treatment is highly expensive but at NICH it is absolutely free as mostly the patients here can’t afford it. They come from everywhere, from Azad Kashmir, Turbat, Baluchistan interior Sindh and slums of Karachi.

Every one of them has its own sad story, its own pains and pathos.pathos. Rauf came here two weeks back with his baba from Azad Kashmi. He is suffering from Leukaemia. . His pale face, frail body and distressed eyes reflect the agony he has endured for more than two years. His eyes glittered at the mention of his home town, “I studied in a school and want to return home where my mother and friends are waiting for me. We can’t stay long in Karachi because baba has already spent all the money he brought and we have no relative here.”

Ameerzadi, a cute minor girl, is the only child of her parents. She was taken from Baluchistan for treatment of the long-rooted form of blood cancer, the village hakims were failed to diagnose.
Faizan and Arslan, both Karachiites, are suffering from acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, They are admitted here for a couple of months and are showing quick recovery.

In the ward, doctors mainly try to control the haematological disorders through medicines and injections. If required, oxygen and blood is also given to the patients, arranged by the NICH blood bank on charity and replacement basis.

The symptoms of the disease in children are complex. They can be anything from constant fever, severe pain in abdomen, vomiting and discharge of blood in vomit or motion. The earlier the disease is diagnosed, which requires a series of multiple tests, the stronger are the chances of recovery.
Currently, the Oncology ward at NICH is having eight beds and two isolated wards for severely ill patients. It is neat, airy and well equipped to meet any emergency situation. A TV set is also placed here to make the children hum and laugh amidst the pains and pills.

The attendants were all in gratitude of the hospital staff and generally seemed quite satisfied . “The doctors and nurses are very cooperative here. They treat our children with great concern.” says Shamim, mother of a patient.

Gul Muhammad told me in a voice overwhelmed with emotions, “They are the only hope for me after Allah. When I brought my son here, I thought he would die but they gave him a new life and didn’t charge me anything.”
In the day care, a dozen of patients were waiting for their turn for chemotherapy. Farrukh, sixth class student, is from RahimyarKhan. He visits the place thrice a weak for almost a month. He said, “I don’t like injection at all. It causes pain. But it’s a part of my ilaj . Doctors ensure me that I ‘will get rid of it very soon and then I can play cricket with my friends.”

Haris, aged 4, has gone through a surgery two months ago and her mother takes him for injection every week.
Chemotherapy is a long, painful treatment but the loving and friendly relation established by the doctors and nurses of the NICH with their little patients makes it less depressing for them
Currently, the major task of the CAA is to ensure the day-to-day smooth running of the unit that includes everything from staff salary, maintenance, supply of costly equipment, rare drugs, supplement food and availability of required treatment that costs around 30,000 to 60,000 rupees weekly, varies widely with the nature and stage of cancer. The treatment of cancer is long and expensive and so the drugs used to cure it. Only in the month of July, the CAA has distributed the medicines of 78,000 rupees in the cancer ward. The demand has almost doubled since its inception and is constantly increasing,

Approximately 80 to 85 percent cancer patients are curable and can lead to a normal, healthy life with right, timely diagnosis and proper treatment. Mortality rate in the case is low and mostly caused by heavy bleeding.

Dr. Asif Ali Khan, who has attached to the NICH Oncology dept. for six years, said “Shortage of drugs and manpower are the key problems we are facing with. There are three shifts and in each shift two doctors and two paramedics are on duty. But quite often we have to work after duty hours due to immense workload and insufficient staff strength. The hospital management is helpless as they have no hiring and firing authority and at the federal level, there is ban on recruitment in the government services for years.”

Now the management of the oncology department took an initiative by appointing new paramedics staff. They not only nurse the patients but also educate the attendants to get the best possible results.
The forthcoming challenge for the CAA is to acquire the equipment for BMT laboratory and commence the bone marrow transplant unit by the end of year 2,000.

Bone marrow transplantation is a treatment for several haematological disorders i.e. the deficiency or excess of red, white and other blood cells called platelets which are responsible for transporting oxygen, maintaining defence system and protecting human body from bleeding. It has offered thousands of people a healthy life who would otherwise die unnoticed.

In the bone marrow transplantation, bone marrow is obtained from the donor with the same tissue level as that of the recipient, or from the patient himself and is transferred to his bone marrow cavity. The results of the treatment are surprisingly encouraging for thalassemia, leukaemia, lymphoma and aplastic anaemia patients who would otherwise dependent on blood transfusion and have a distressed life.
A least 10 million rupees are needed for the specialised equipment and trained staff to initiate the prime bone marrow transplant unit for children in the country.

Apparently it seems impossible as at the moment NICH has nothing except four vacant BMT wards and a solitude laboratory. But Dr. Nizam is very hopeful that the same people will make this dream come true who did it before. “It was the public support that motivated us to set up such an infra-structure without any government aid and now we need the same people – young and old, students and industrialists, socialists and scientists – to come forward and join hands to make it functional. We need people who are willing to volunteer their time, energy or money for a cause that can give many a happy, healthy life, they really deserve.