When Dilip Lokhande came to visit in October I realised I had not seen him all of this year. Dilip is a very special person in my life (more on that later) and so I was very happy to see him and see him looking so well. He had this accusatory look in his eyes when he came over to see me and though the words were unsaid I heard them loud and clear. “How come every time I come you are not here?” Dilip comes from Thane District and works in the city, leaving his wife and two young children back home in his native place. Sometime in 2000, Dilip began to have intermittent bouts of heavy fever that left him weak and devastated, unable to attend to his work. On one visit to his village his concerned wife insisted he see a doctor and took him to a certain Dr Kulkarni. To this day Dilip cannot stop saying how grateful he is to this doctor for immediately realising that this was no ordinary fever and asking for a series of tests to be done. The mind numbing diagnosis of Leukemia was given and it seemed like the end of everything. His family was shocked and understandably thrown into the greatest despair while he was shaken to the core and left with the agonizing thoughts of what would happen to his young wife and little children.
Dr Kulkarni somehow inspired great confidence in him and he was willing to let this kind doctor take over and guide his next steps. Also, deep in the recesses of his mind his faith in God told him he would not be abandoned. After all, he was a good son, husband and father; he had no vices; staying away as he did from Tobacco and Alcohol. Cancer struck people who ate Gutka and who did not take care of themselves, He could not have Cancer and if he did then Dr Kulkarni was there to take care of him.
Following his instructions, though with a heavy heart Dilip made the traumatic visit to the dreaded Tata Memorial Hospital. Once there he went through another gamut of investigations and the diagnosis of Chronic Myeloid Leukemia was confirmed and he was put on a medication called Hydrea. For four long years he struggled with the side effects of this medication and the disease. He still cannot believe he somehow managed to continue with his work despite being so debilitated. His whole body turned black and he found himself just living from one day to the next. He was also finding it difficult to bear the cost of the medication. It seemed that he had to buy this indefinitely and it was quite a strain on him financially.
Through out these years he still did not lose hope. Something kept him going; telling him better days were just round the corner. He was the one giving his wife and family the courage to go on , making it a point to be a loving husband and a caring albeit long distance father to his children . Before long his patience and forbearance paid off . During one of his periodic visits to the hospital the treating physician shared some news with him which was to change his life forever.
He was asked to take a form filled out by the doctor to the office of The Max Foundation in Worli . They would enroll him in a donation programme run by Novartis .
Dilip walked in one busy afternoon with his Tata Hospital case file . GIPAP by then had become a well known programme and physicians from all over the country were referring patients who would benefit from the life long assistance provided by Novartis , and Glivec was indeed the Magic Bullet that had changed the way CML would be treated. Our little office was besieged by applications and this afternoon was no different from the others of the past few months.
When I looked up from the papers in front of me to see who the new visitor was I did a quick double take!! I was sure I knew who this was; I was sure I had met him somewhere, some time but could not place him. Anyway, I asked him to sit and began the process of filling out the details of his history. I realised that he too kept stealing glances at me and it was evident he also seemed to find me familiar.
He had all his papers in order and then I was asking about his work. He told me he worked with the State Transport Corporation and was a bus conductor. I asked him if he found it difficult to continue with his strenuous job but with a charming smile he said his job was what kept him sane and getting into his uniform every morning was like wearing another skin , entering into another zone where his disease did not exist . The elusive feeling of “ I know this man” kept edging around my mind and as I was struggling to identify some familiar lead he got up to leave promising to return with the papers required from his employers the next day.
I smiled, picturing him in his bus conductor’s uniform and then it hit me !! Even as this thought ran across my mind something seemed to make him turn back to my desk and my eager query to him “ Are you not the Conductor in bus # 56? “ collided with his shy “ Madam , do you not live in Thane ?”
I stood up with a stupid grin on my face ; this was my 9 .49 pm bus buddy from Thane Station to Manpada ; the forever cheerful and charming bus conductor who made that late night , tiresome last leg of my horrendous commute from work worth all the hassle. With his ever smiling visage and cheerful disposition he would tirelessly walk down the bus tearing off tickets and along with the tickets he always had one little remark for each of his tired passengers. My stop was the last one and I always got off the bus warmed by the exuberant exchange “ Chala , udaya bhettu ya ´ that would ring in my years “ “ Good Night ; see you tomorrow “ This was him !! All these days he had been battling CML while going about his strenuous bus conductor’s responsibilities!!
I no longer take that bus now and Dilip too no longer works on that route but occasionally we see each other in the neighbourhood and wave out to each other a special bond binding us together. If not there is always the Max India office where we meet when Dilip comes to see us with his doctor’s prescription. He looks wonderful and is a regular at our group meetings and cannot thank Novartis and The Max Foundation enough for this new life. As he confided to Ashok that afternoon in October – “When I met Viji Venkatesh Madam that first day in your office, my heart was heavy and recognizing her I cried in sorrow and despair and also some relief, for in this alien atmosphere, by chance I met someone I knew. All of you have helped me so much and today I am a different man, working hard and happy with my lot in life”