In 2012, Purnota Dutta Bahl, a 33-year-old marketing wiz, took a sabbatical from work to concentrate on her child. It was during this time that she visited Mumbai’s Tata Memorial Hospital’s pediatric ward and a chance encounter with a two-year-old changed her life for good. Needless to say it was a gut-wrenching experience. “As I was coming out of the ward, I saw an infant. She looked so similar to my daughter; even she had a black thread tied to her leg like my little one. The only difference was that she was a cancer patient. Only then it struck me that there was not much difference between them and my child. I was overwhelmed and decided to bring a change to their life. I got out of the ward and asked the head of social works on how I could help. That moment of initiation led to the birth of Cuddles in June 2012,” says Purnota, founder and chief executive officer of the Mumbai-based Cuddles Foundation (CF), India’s only support group that focuses on nutrition and hygiene supplements for under privileged children suffering from cancer.
Although Purnota’s idea was simple, its execution required heavy capital investment. “The starting capital came from my husband, close friends and family. For further requirements, I would pick up the phone and remind my friends of the birthday or anniversary gift they owed me.” Purnota started raisings funds through locally organised and managed fund-raisers, art-pops and even exhibitions.
Finally, her hard work paid off when her team expanded and she was joined in her mission by a team of like-minded professionals. Shilpa Bhagat, who came on board in December last year as a co-founder and chief operational officer of the foundation says in India very few people know that nutrition is as important as chemotherapy when it comes to curing cancer. “If a child’s body is not strong enough, the child will not be able to take chemo. Many underprivileged kids have to abandon chemotherapy since they are malnourished. Also since their immunity is so low many of these children perish due to diseases that could have been easily avoided. Infant cure or survival rate is highest in young children. So our mission is to provide nutritional products and hygiene supplements to the hospital. These hospitals in turn administer it to the children,” says Shilpa.
Working with children between the age group of one and eight, Cuddles has been helping about 110 young children every month. Purnota says, “As we grow, our effort is in carrying out more in-depth programmes. This means that we try to carry out more programmes with these 100 kids to make our intervention more meaningful and long-lasting. For instance, not only are we aiming to provide nutrition, our next step is caregiver education. We are also planning to hire nutrition and hygiene counselors to teach parents how to maximise these two aspects within their limited means. So essentially the numbers of children are same but we are constantly aiming to increase programmes for them.”
Cuddles has impacted the lives of over 1,500 children suffering from cancer and other ailments and has helped 500 children at Tata Memorial and 5,000 children at Sion Hospital. They are now planning to execute two important tasks. A full-fledged nutrition programme aimed at providing daily meals to cancer afflicted children, and, expand to a few more hospitals in the next few years.
While every single person afflicted with cancer deserves help, Purnota says children for her hold a very special place. “A child who gets cured from cancer has the best survival rate and goes on to contribute a 50 to 60 years to the society,” she signs off.