Intrepid gran’s passage to India
SOHAM grandmother Sheila Bennett could have spent her retirement jetsetting around the globe on her pension. But even before she checked out of her 25-year stint at Waitrose she decided to spend her retirement volunteering. Intrepid traveller, Sheila, hea
SOHAM grandmother Sheila Bennett could have spent her retirement jetsetting around the globe on her pension. But even before she checked out of her 25-year stint at Waitrose she decided to spend her retirement volunteering.
Intrepid traveller, Sheila, headed for a placement in India with volunteer organisation Itoi. But when she stepped off the plane, the promised medical project was just an ordinary nursery school for privileged children.
Showing typical resourcefulness, 65-year-old Sheila strode off in the direction of the nearest hospital, determined to make a difference. Within three years, she had raised £9,000 to fund a hospital destined to cater for HIV positive patients.
Five years on, Sheila now works at Accept, a 35-bed hospital in Bangalore, which caters for children and adults in various stages of HIV/AIDs.
Some of those children are picked up from railway stations with an unknown family history. Others are AIDS orphans.
Particularly with the language barrier, and not least because the majority of those affected by HIV are illiterate, Sheila and three hospital counsellors have difficulty explaining the condition to patients.
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"There was a 10-year-old girl who came in with her mother," said Sheila.
"She was trying to nurse her, to give her water, but she just couldn't understand why her mother, who was semi-
conscious, wouldn't wake up."
Sheila refuses to be downhearted spending every day caring for the sick and is determined to focus on small successes.
Her ex-patients Moses and Vina met at a government hospital while standing in the queue for anti-retroviral drugs.
Finding they had a mutual friend in Sheila, they met up again, fell in love, and then Moses asked Sheila to visit his family and persuade them to let him marry her.
The family were unwilling, but Sheila is a woman who gets things done. She finally found Vina and Moses a vicar who would marry them in a Christian ceremony. The couple had the reception on Sheila's terrace in Bangalore and have lived happily together ever since.
The Accept clinic is funded by donations, from Sheila's small pension and by its Christian benefactors. But it is in desperate need of a new ward to accommodate increasing numbers of patients. Some of those who come through the door are sex workers, some are truck drivers, but they almost all have difficult backgrounds.
Sheila graphically describes situations of horrific abuse where women infected by a philandering husband are blamed and ostracised by their spouse. "One man picked up a stone and hit his wife with it, but she still cried when he died of AIDs," she said.
"The Indian government is in denial that its country is still in the Third World. There are a lot of rich people, but often because of karma, some think people must have done something in another life to deserve AIDS. I know I'm from a different culture and I feel differently about things to other people, but nobody deserves it."
INFO: If you would like to help fund extra beds at the hospital in Bangalore, please drop donations in to the Ely Standard. Cheques are payable to Sheila Bennett Hospital.