“One photograph started it all,” says Dr Noel J Patterson, a chiropractor, who is leading a 33- member strong team of doctors and volunteers, including 14 fresh graduates, from major cities of Australia, on a mission to tea gardens and villages on river banks in and around Siliguri. Stationed for two weeks at Seva Kendra at Pradhan Nagar in Siliguri, Dr Patterson’s team under ‘Hands on India,’ a charity based in Australia, begins the day early.

With breakfast done at 7, the doctors assemble for a quick last minute planning and pile into four vehicles that will take them to the gardens. “The other day, I was watching a lady carry 31 bricks on her back. This puts a great deal of physical load on your body, and we help them correct the physical problems that people like this lady have,” says Dr Patterson, while explaining that Chiropractic is a natural form of health care that uses spinal adjustments to correct misalignments and restore proper function of the nervous system, helping the body to heal naturally.

“There’s a lot of stuff we can diagnose, and our intervention has been very beneficial for the people here,” he says, adding that the visits have also been a “great learning experience for us.” According to him, his team of doctors raises funds for the whole year back in Australia and prepares for the annual visit to the region here. “There are so many things we can do. We are just scratching at the surface now, and we would like to do a lot, lot more, but, again, funds are a major problem, he said, adding that he has been working on this and looking to raise funds through private companies’ Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). On some schools that the group works with, Dr Patterson says, “We check every child for abnormalities and deformities and give them basic medical care. The idea is to fix the problems when they are small, so that they don’t have to live with the problems as they grow.”

On his association with Seva Kendra, Dr Patterson says, “Interestingly, we come across this photo of three little kids breaking stones, and it was then that we said, ‘That’s where we want to go.’ And we found Seva Kendra.” As they plan to provide medical assistance to around 5000 people in tea plantations like Kiran Chandra, Hansqua and Gulma, and Fulbari and settlements along the Mahananda, Balason and Changa rivers during their 12th trip this time, Dr Patterson says people in these areas work very hard and in tough conditions, even as they carry loads on their heads, causing huge stress on the neck, while the stone breakers swing their hands that hold the hammer.

“We are also trying to change the way they work and make them understand the ergonomics,” says Dr Patterson, who has also worked with the Australian cricket team as a therapist, and also attended to the Indian cricket team during their trips to Perth. Apart from the medical care, ‘Hands On India’ also helps run around 300 self help groups in these areas, where around 3000 women are now successfully engaged in income-generation schemes. “It’s a tough task and it takes a lot of time, but its good here. We love it. We love the people here and we get a lot of self satisfaction. They are just beautiful people,” he says.

Director of Seva Kendra, Father Felix A Pinto, says the Australian doctors, through their mobile clinic, bring along with them a great deal of love and compassion for the patients and children they treat. “The very nature of their treatment, which has so much to do with touch, is healing many of their ailments. The sacrifice that these doctors make to come to India is enormous, as they give up their holiday and spend their own money for travel and stay here.

This is so contrary to what we hear sometimes about some medical professionals whose aim is more mercenary than mercy,” he says. Established in 1972 to serve Bangladeshi refugees during the war, Seva Kendra works with the poor and marginalised through various activities in different fields like agriculture, disaster management, education, forestry, health, training and women’s issues. “It’s a tough life for them in the tea gardens, but I must say they are a happy bunch of people,” says Marilyn Patterson, as she prepares the team to leave for the sites for the day.