Saboo: 20 years of ‘Service Beyond Borders
In the 20 years since that first trip to Uganda, they’ve sent
more than 500 volunteers to 43 countries, performed 67,000 surgeries,
examined 250,000 patients, and received $2.4 million in grants.
When Rajendra Saboo finished his term as president of Rotary International
in 1992, he started thinking about how he could continue to help people.
And by 1998, after serving as Rotary Foundation trustee chair, he
knew he wanted to do something hands-on.
“When I was Rotary president, my theme was Look Beyond Yourself,”
says Saboo, a member of the Rotary Club of Chandigarh, India. “I
was thinking about service beyond borders. So I thought, ‘Is
there anything that India can give?’ I realized that medical
science in India is fairly advanced, and there are doctors —
Rotarian doctors — who could give something to Africa, where
the medical needs are tremendous.”
During a 2016 mission to Kigali, Rwanda, Saboo demonstrated that he
had overcome his discomfort with blood to become an effective member
of the medical team.
Saboo talked to Nandlal Parekh, a fellow Rotarian and a physician
who had worked in Uganda before being forced out by dictator Idi Amin.
Parekh thought Uganda, even though it was still in the midst of a
civil war, would be an excellent place for a medical mission. The
trip that Saboo organized in 1998 was the start of 20 years of medical
missions and over 67,000 surgeries.
To accompany him on that first trip, Saboo assembled a team of surgeons
with experience performing corrective surgery on patients with polio,
as well as a team of ophthalmologists. Then, a few days before they
were scheduled to depart, terrorists bombed the U.S. embassies in
Kenya and Tanzania, killing hundreds of people. A third attack, in
the Ugandan capital of Kampala, was foiled.
“We were terrified,” he says. “The doctors were
also saying, ‘Should we go? Will we be safe?
Then Saboo’s wife, Usha, talked to a woman who had returned
from volunteering to help people wounded in the war in the former
Yugoslavia. Usha asked her if she had been afraid.
“You die only once,” the woman replied. “And it
is the way you die that matters. I did not find any fear at the time,
because I was serving humanity.”
“That answer hit Usha,” recalls Saboo. “She told
me about it. Then we called a meeting where she recounted her conversation.
The doctors and the volunteers said, ‘We are ready to go.’”
They arrived three days after the bombings. From Kampala, one team
took a bus four hours east to Masaka, while another went north to
Gulu to perform eye surgery. The local hospital hadn’t seen
an ophthalmologist in seven years. Some of the old women danced after
their eye surgery because they had never seen their grandchildren.
Saboo, who has no medical training himself, got squeamish when he
saw blood. But the team needed all the volunteers to pitch in —
by washing the dirty feet of children in preparation for surgery,
loading patients on stretchers, helping to start the IV drips, and
doing anything else that needed to be done.
“Madhav Borate, who was the leader of our medical mission, said,
‘Raja, change your clothes and come to the operating theater.
You have to hold the patient’s wrist while we are operating
and monitor the pulse,’ ” Saboo recalls. “I said,
‘Madhav, are you mad? I can’t even stand seeing someone
receiving an injection. I can’t stand the sight of blood. I
would faint.’ ”
Borate recalls that day too. “The operating rooms were lacking
in monitoring equipment, including a device called a pulse oximeter,”
he says. “So we decided to train three Rotarians to feel the
pulse of the patients and inform the anesthetist if it became too
fast or too slow. We started referring to the volunteers as our pulse
“I saw blood,” says Saboo. “I saw everything, and
nothing happened to me. That changed me totally.”
In 2015, Rajendra Saboo and his wife, Usha, were inducted into the
Arch Klumph Society.
Immediately upon their return to India, the team members started planning
their next trip, this time to Ethiopia, with additional specialists.
The third year they went to Nigeria. In the 20 years since that first
trip to Uganda, they’ve sent more than 500 volunteers to 43
countries, performed 67,000 surgeries, examined 250,000 patients,
and received $2.4 million in grants from The Rotary Foundation and
from districts in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and other countries. They’ve
arranged for patients in Africa with complicated medical problems
to be flown to India for treatment, and have conducted missions within
Last year, for the mission’s 20th anniversary, the team returned
to Uganda. The country is wealthier and more peaceful now but still
has many needs.
“The infrastructure and facilities at the hospital were much
better, and the nursing staff was cooperative and helpful,”
says Borate. “But there was still a severe shortage of supplies,
instruments, and equipment even for routine operations.”
Nonetheless, with the help of Rotarians and doctors from Uganda, the
team performed 1,100 surgeries, including 440 eye operations, 452
dental procedures, 25 reconstructive surgeries, and 84 general surgeries.
“It is the greatest impact I have seen in my 22 years as a Rotarian,”
says Emmanuel Katongole, past governor of District 9211 (Tanzania
and Uganda). “To see so many people with such complex problems,
queuing for days for operations, and to see the happiness on their
faces. We’re still getting calls asking, ‘Where are the
Indian doctors? Can they come back?’?”
For 2019, Saboo has an even bigger goal. “Sam Owori, who was
selected to be the 2018-19 RI president but who passed away in 2017,
said to me, ‘Raja, during my year as president, I would like
you to arrange a team of medical doctors to go to every district of
Africa.’ I said, ‘I’ll try,’?” he says.
“After Sam died, President Barry Rassin said to me, ‘Raja,
let us see if we can fulfill the dream that Sam had.’ So now
we are planning on that.”