Dr.Walter Fischer, Barefoot Acupuncturists, Dharavi, Mumbai
‘Heal the world; make it a better place….’ Michael Jackson.I am sure if the king of Pop was alive today, he would think someone is doing justice to his song as the lyrics of this song are the mantra of Brussels born Doctor Walter Fischer.
MAY 2007 was indeed a turning point in the life of Dr Walter Fischer, an acupuncturist, who had visited India many times in the past. Only this time, he didn’t know that fate had planned a much longer stay for him in this country. ‘Infact when I was 19 years old, I had visited Calcutta and volunteered at Mother Teresa’s ashram. I had also worked with another Doctor who hailed from Europe. Though I was young, I enjoyed my stay of one month helping as much as I could’ he states humbly.
So why India of all the countries? And Dr. Walter replies very matter-of-fact; ‘It wasn’t that I had consciously planned on coming to India. I arrived in 2007 in Bombay and got associated with an NGO – CSSC (Center for study of social change). We set up a free camp for a month and I offered my services to the hilt. I was not sure of how it would be received but I went into it headlong. A month of service and then I took off to Kashmir, to relax’, he smiles. ‘And it was in Kashmir, that I took a decision to stay back’. What was it that made him take such a decision? ‘Actually, it was the people. When they came to know I am a doctor and offering acupuncture service almost free, they flocked to me. That was the real reason I decided to come back to Bombay and start something in full swing’.
January 2008. Walter Fischer sets up a small clinic in a slum of Mumbai.
One wonders how the slums of Bombay would react to some ‘gora’ setting up a Samaritan service. A million doubts and questions could crop up – political, religious and more. ‘Well,’ replies Dr Walter, earlier on when I was serving with the CSSC, I came across Ujwala Patil, a young Indian social worker who offered to help me in my mission. Her family is well known in this area and the people trust them very much. They understood my mission and knew it was a genuine attempt on my part. Together we opened a rudimentary acupuncture clinic (7 square meters, two treatment beds, no running water). Look, people are often suspicious when they find an NGO / Christian organization etc, because they hold that fear of getting converted and all such things. Such reactions are normal. I was welcome from the start. We got extremely positive results and nothing could have made me happier’.
A few months later Ujwala created her own NGO, ‘Barefoot Slum’ . This will be in charge of running the future acupuncture clinics in Mumbai, in association with Dr. Walter and the ‘Barefoot Acupuncturists’.
‘Barefoot Acupuncturists’ is a non-profit organization and was formed in Belgium in January 2009. ‘This,’ says Dr. Walter, ‘was after a year of active presence in the slums of Mumbai which had necessitated such an initiative. The administrative functions of the organization are handled by the five founders on a voluntary basis. Work in the field is done by a team which includes Dr. Walter Fischer, Ujwala Patil and an Indian staff. Visiting acupuncturists from various countries regularly meet up with us. We share our experiences and knowledge, by giving both, treatments as well as imparting the skills’.
Honesty is his second name and it very evident from the efforts he has made to make this mission of his a success. Very simply clad in clean, crisp cottons, his clinic titled ‘Barefoot Acupuncturists’ is set in Vijaynagar, on the ground floor in building C. The white-washed walls and the impeccable interiors leave you amazed at how much must have gone into keeping this five room clinic in such a fine state.
‘A year ago, I had a much smaller place, where I could accommodate only two beds and without a washroom. I wanted to understand the pulse of the people, their reaction, to understand whether they would accept and welcome my services. Also, it was my own investment in the place and I had to be very practical about everything and spend wisely. One may have great ideas but if the people around you are not ready to accept them, then it makes no sense at all’.
And what about family? He flashes his appealing smile ‘I’m all of forty, unmarried. Sure, I have my parents whom I visit once or perhaps twice a year. I am in regular touch with them’. Did they ever try to dissuade him from his goals? ‘No, never. My Mom has been a social worker and my parents encouraged me from the very start. They are proud of what I am doing’ he replies in the most humble manner.
It takes courage to set foot on foreign land and set up a clinic no matter how noble your intentions are and yet when you question Dr. Walter, all he says is; ‘It is more than courage. It is your inner passion. I had had a vision of setting up a “Barefoot” project while studying acupuncture at the Swiss Institute of Chinese Medicine Guang Ming. The very fact that acupuncture is an economic drug-free so powerful treatment, I had decided then itself that it could be a boon for the poorest lot of society. Thereafter I spent two years in China, further improvising upon my acupuncture skills in a government hospital as well as in private clinics’.
One can’t but wonder what could have drawn a man like Dr. Walter to pursue such a goal in life all by himself, without anyone backing him financially or otherwise. Was it something personal that triggered it off? ‘Honestly, I have been trying to find the meaning of life since I was 15 years. I realized even then, that it was very important for a person to follow his dreams. As far as doing it on my own, I have been independent since an early age. At 18, I left for the US to pursue my studies. In the west, it’s different and yet though I do respect the family emotions and attachments of the east, which also form an important part of one’s life, it is my freedom which has helped me to pursue my goals. When one is married, your priorities change, your family comes first and there are things which though you would love to devote yourself to, you simply cannot. But family is important, I agree. I am as fond of my parents and my sister as they are of me. I respect them for being so supportive of what I am doing.’
How powerful is acupuncture as a treatment? Dr. Walter answers without sounding like a braggard. ‘We treat paralysis, neurological pathologies, digestive problems, sleep disorders and even gynaecological diseases. It offers immense relief in cases of various bodily pains and aches. 90% of the patients who have come to us with ailments of pain have been cured’. What about serious issues like strokes etc? ‘In such cases, it does not heal but definitely helps to a large extent, e.g. in the elasticity of muscles, atrophy etc. We have seen very good results in patients who have taken sessions in a period of less than a month’.
Ask Dr. Walter which patient proved to be one of the most challenging and he replies ‘There was this one patient who had come to meet me because she wanted to avoid the torture of undergoing an operation. And she was healed’. And all this healing for Rs 20 only!!? ‘No, no, this amount is only for the poorest of the society. They will not be able to afford more than Rs 30, perhaps. There was this one patient who got me an apple as a gesture of appreciation’, he reminisces ‘and it gave me unimaginable joy. However, the middle-class and the wealthy also expect me to charge them Rs 20/-. They must understand that this service is for the very poor. I charge those who can afford Rs 300 - Rs 500 per session depending on the ailment they are suffering from. I charge because we need to run this place. I have assistants, there are electricity and maintenance bills, all of which needs to be taken care of. You know sometimes I get patients who just can’t pay but they leave me wealthier by showering all their blessings on me. Need I ask for more?’
Pooja Zendey, a commerce undergraduate who works with Dr.Walter smiles in agreement and says ‘He is god-sent. No one would offer such services. I have been working with him for a year now and it gives him sheer joy healing the poor.
So what drives Dr. Walter? ‘I don’t know’, he replies, his eyes twinkling. ‘I guess I have to yet figure that out. I have no expectations. My greatest joy is my work being received in India. I am not going to spend my life here. My duty is to impart my skills to others like Pooja and more, train them, make them perfectionists and move on to set up another such clinic elsewhere. But, this is my dream. One must accept situations. The day I don’t have funds, I will face poverty but I will continue doing my work at any cost because this is what makes me the happiest and gives my life meaning’.
Ask Pooja if she would like to continue in the same vein as Dr Walter and she says ‘Yes, I will continue in his footsteps for sure. This is the best way one can serve the underprivileged lot of society. He has been very, very kind to train me and I will carry the torch forward and train others in return’.
Dr Walter intervenes and says ‘Look, it is my project. I am never going to give it up. I will train as many people, impart all the knowledge and then go where my help is required and set up clinics elsewhere. I will always be a part of this, always’.
‘Barefoot Acupuncturists’ welcomes patients from 9.30 am until 1.30 pm every single day of the week. Since its inception, "Barefoot Acupuncturists" has treated over 1000 patients in India. About 15-20 patients are treated per day. A treatment requires several sessions, from a few days for common problems to several months for heavy handicaps’.
So what does this noble man do in the remaining hours of the day? ‘I am on the computer, networking, trying to raise funds, seek help, offer help and explore other places where I may be needed. We plan to open more clinics in other slums of Mumbai and also in isolated villages in India. We are co-operating with an Indian acupuncture school (ATAMA) in Tamil Nadu, southern India, and we opened our first rural clinic in June 2010. We hope to inaugurate one more by 2012, with a constant objective: to reach the poorest populations. We have been successful in our various activities because of some private fundraising, both in Europe and India. We also have approached a few Indian Government institutions have been approached regarding the issue of subsidies aimed at healthcare and self-employment projects and are hopeful of some positive results’.
As Dr Walter guides you through his clinic, explaining how they function, you wonder if he is some kind of modern day messiah. Perhaps he reads my thoughts, for the next thing he tells me is; ‘Messiah’, he nods his head in the negative. ‘I do believe there is some power or order above us all but beyond that, nothing. ‘Barefoot Acupuncturists’ is a non-profit organization. We have no political or religious affiliation. Our only objective is to offer acupuncture treatments and training to less privileged populations in order to relieve them from illness and support them in having greater autonomy in healthcare’. In order to meet these goals, Dr. Walter believes that they have to achieve local autonomy, producing clinics run by local practitioners who will in the future, manage the day-to-day operations and hopefully take over the management. They also plan to train local people in acupuncture who will be able to practice in their own communities. ‘Presently active in India's slums and villages, our project could be adapted and transposed to other countries or communities’ he adds.
Secret to the success of his dream: ‘The best way to succeed is by training Indian acupuncturists through our own training centre in Mumbai and the ATAMA facilities in Tamil Nadu. Since March 2010, we started classes with our present staff. Practitioners from India and several other countries have already joined us and will continue to support us by teaching and practicing in our clinics’.
Before I leave, I ask Dr Walter the most important question ‘Why the name ‘Barefoot’. With his signature smile, he explains ‘In China during the 1960's, thousands of peasants, men and women, were selected for an intensive three- to six-month course in medical training. Those “barefoot doctors" continued their farming work in the commune fields, working alongside their comrades. Their proximity made them readily available to help those in need. They provided basic health care and taught hygiene. Ten years after, there were an estimated 1 million barefoot doctors in China.
In the 1970s, the World Health Organization and leaders in some developing countries began to consider China's program as an alternate model to Western-style health care. They were looking for inexpensive ways to deliver health care to rural populations: China had set up a model that seemed to work’.
Dr. Walter lives by the day. ‘Yes, of course, who knows what the morrow brings but one’s efforts must continue. Dreams must be pursued and achieved. If you believe in it, you can achieve it. We will continue to put our efforts into building up autonomous structures, giving acupuncture training in villages and slums and reaching the poorest to improve their tomorrow. We know it can be achieved and we are sure that it will make the world a slightly better place’.
Does he ever get frustrated at patients, circumstances etc? ‘Of course, I do. I have many frustrations but not for craving or avarice of something but because I feel I should be able to do more and perhaps I am unable to do it’. And how does this gentle man fight such frustrations. ‘Hmm, I go jogging and meet up with friends.
The finale was when I asked him what if someone gave him the world’s wealth, to which he gave another very honest and realistic answer; ‘With an indisputable, unquestionable sense of justice and greatness, I would redistribute it back to the world, after keeping a bit of it, and buy myself a nice posh house on the beach. Rapidly the world would turn back into a total mess, I would very sadly have to sell my beach house and... go with my needles to where ever I believe I could be most useful to the people.
“Amidst the Bombay slums
Dr Walter Fischer stands tall
He offers his acupuncture services without expectations
Spreading joy in the lives of all”! …………..Canta Dadlaney
For more details log on to http://www.barefootacupuncturists.com/