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A gift to all: NMSU students help polio victims in India

On Feb. 25, 2012, the World Health Organization removed India from its list of polio-endemic countries, meaning that no new cases of the debilitating and deadly disease had been recorded on the subcontinent for a year. No small feat in a nation of 1.21 billion people.

Nigel Holman, left, director of the NMSU Annual Fund and adviser to the university's Rotaract Club, hands out food at the hospital in India where funds raised by the club helped people with polio-related deformities receive corrective surgery. (Courtesy photo)

However, while polio immunization efforts have been a stunning success in a country that health officials just a few years ago were saying would be one of the last to wipe out the disease, millions of Indians continue to struggle with polio-related deformities.

New Mexico State University alumnus Rahul Tangirala is acutely aware of this situation, as his family lives in one of states hardest hit by polio, Bihar in northeastern India. While still a student at NMSU, Tangirala, in his capacity as director of international service for Rotaract, the university's student chapter of the Rotary Club, proposed a fundraising campaign to provide corrective surgery to those people in Bihar who were left disabled by the polio virus. So far, $10,000 has been raised for the effort.

"Everyone liked the fact that the program would address the issue of people who already are affected by polio versus polio immunization," Tangirala said. "The primary mode of fundraising for the project was through selling items from India, such as bangles, forehead stickers, clothes, paintings and so forth. This money was used for paying doctors, the medical staff, the calipers, bandages ? all the equipment and devices they needed to use for surgery ? and also to support and feed for the duration of the project the friends and families of patients who were getting surgery."

In an interesting twist of fate, it was the very month India was declared polio-free that all of the hard work and money raised by the NMSU Rotaract Club, in collaboration with the Mesilla Valley Rotary Club, was put into action in a "surgery camp" in the city of Begusarai in Bihar. The camp provided free medical care for more than 200 children with polio-related deformities to their feet and legs, including 77 surgeries. Other Rotary Clubs in New Mexico, as well at the Rotary Club in Begusarai, helped to raise funds and coordinate the surgeries. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation also contributed a matching gift, Tangirala said.

Due to various timing issues, Tangirala and other members of the Rotaract Club could not travel to India to witness the surgeries, but adviser Nigel Holman, director of the NMSU Annual Fund, made certain that the university had a presence during the event.

"When I first heard about the project I knew it was an exciting idea. I knew that it would happen because people like Rahul make things happen," said Holman, a long-time Rotarian. "But at that time, I would have to say I probably thought my involvement in it would be limited to helping with a little bit of the fundraising, helping make some connections on campus and with the Rotary Clubs in the community, and we'd end up sending a check to India. But it occurred to me that it was very important that someone from Las Cruces, somebody who had been involved in the project, should be there to see it happen."

He traveled to Begusarai, where he witnessed throngs of impoverished families bringing in children from toddlers to young adults to try to get them corrective surgery. Some of the patients seeking help walked with severe limps or needed crutches to move around or could only crawl. Unfortunately, surgeries could not be performed on some patients.

"In most of these cases, their deformities were too serious to be taken care of on that particular weekend," Holman said. "But we know there are ways that they can be helped with some more advanced surgeries in the state capital, so we want to fundraise for those children. We also know that there are a few people who surgery can't help, but they can be helped if they have tricycles that allow them to get around. These are hand-powered tricycles ? you see them quite often on Indian streets ? and obviously having a hand-powered tricycle changes the life of somebody who is suffering from polio. So we also want to find some way to provide tricycles for those children."

Holman was on hand in the recovery room, chatting and passing out food to patients and their families.

"Everybody in India was enormously welcoming and enormously grateful that I was there," he said. "I had to keep reminding them that really I was the lucky one there. I was being thanked, but really they were thanking NMSU, they were thanking the Rotaract Club for what they had done for the project. I was just the eyes and ears of the students and the donors, and hopefully there will be more eyes and ears of other people participating in the future."

The Rotaract Club, Tangirala and Holman now are planning phase two of the project, which they hope will include follow-ups with patients, additional surgeries and therapy.

"From a fundraising point of view, from a philanthropy point of view, you really want to go and look at the next chapter in these people's lives, because I think that's where you see the impact of what the money that was raised here in Las Cruces has done," Holman said.

For the next visit, the hope is to have a team of students from NMSU travel to India.

"One of the big goals or endeavors that we have is to have a team of students and help them go to India to actually experience for themselves the impact of the project, which I think is a great opportunity to help understand the problem better," Tangirala said.

Tangirala, who graduated last year with a master's in economics and now works for NMSU's Bio Security and Food Safety Center, is delighted that he has been able to see his project through to fruition, especially in a nation where polio lives only as a bad memory from long ago.

"It felt really great," he said. "For one, especially speaking from a student perspective as a Rotaract Club member, it was really interesting to see how people responded and the enthusiasm they showed toward the project. Another interesting thing we learned along the way was how many people still pay attention to and are very aware of polio, which was very instrumental in everyone coming out and supporting the project."

For more information contact Holman at nholman@nmsu.edu.