by Brittany Myhre

The sunlight extinguished as I crossed the threshold into a cement room. As my eyes adjusted to the relative darkness after leaving the Indian sun, my heart broke into shards, taking in the tiny figure on the floor.  Akarsh* was china-doll delicate, flanked by his two older brothers pressing themselves against the walls. The boys were all very small for their ages; curiosity and apprehension reflected in their young faces. Introducing myself to his mother through the help of the community-resource worker I accompanied, I could see the weight of the family’s reality draped over his mother’s bony shoulders and reflected in her sunken eyes.

The house was perhaps the size of a large garden shed, with cement floors and walls. A single bulb fought to illuminate the stark walls that held this family’s whole lives, serving simultaneously as Akarsh’s sanctuary, and prison. Akarsh spent every day of his six years laying on a thin woven mat on the cement floor, and his skull had flattened in response. How many hours must he have spent kicking against the dreary colored cement, trying to move around and explore his little world? As a result, his hair had rubbed off and his scalp roughened. Holding him in my arms, my brain and heart waged a war. My brain ran through pragmatics, assessments and functional concerns. My heart ached at Akarsh’s tiny frame, the size of a toddler, a result of the chronic malnutrition etched into the faces and bodies of the entire family.

My mind raged and my soul wept. How unfair that Akarsh’s parents had to choose between feeding their family, and his epilepsy medication. That the medication couldn’t be properly monitored, and his seizures seemed to be happening at an alarming rate. Unfair that this family had to huddle together on the hard floor every night as sleep pulled their eyes closed. Unfair that society made this mother afraid to take her child past the threshold of their home, into the sunlight, for fear of judgement. That they were not the only family in this reality.

Unfair or not, I swallowed the anger bubbling in my throat and knew that I had to do the best I could with my own circumstances and knowledge. Every session we had, he seemingly engaged a little more to the others around him. The last session I had with him was amazing; Akarsh pushed himself up off the floor a few inches and rolled by himself. He started to grasp his bottle. The beanbag seating that we had created meant he would be able to sit up for the first time in his life without someone having to hold him, and that he could participate in his world. I felt that this small spark of hope could ignite a fire of change and possibility.  

At the end of the session, the community workers asked, in front of his mother, if I would take him with me back to Canada, because I would make him better there and that I was so good with him. It was a sharp, quick blow, one that screamed to me how my privileges were so evident despite my attempts to be self-reflective, be conscious of my position and potential as a neo-colonist. All I could muster, through teary eyes and a shaky voice, was that he was getting stronger, learning new skills every day and that he had a loving family. I couldn’t take him from where he was loved. How do you even respond to that? I’ve run those moments through my mind over and over.

I am amazed at the circumstances that brought me to India, at that time, to that family, to that child. I recognize that my own future was forever changed because of Akarsh and realize I am a small paragraph in a chapter of this family’s life. Akarsh is in the back of my mind every day, present with me with every client I meet, reminding me that anything is possible despite seemingly overwhelming circumstances. He is my reminder of hope, a promise to serve my clients the best I can and to continue to rally against the disparities facing people worldwide.

*name changed for privacy

Brittany is a recent graduate from the School of Physical and Occupational Therapy. Her interests, besides global health, include hiking, reading and yoga. She resides in Calgary, Alberta, and plans to return to India as a supervisor for future students.