Train converted into a hospital delivers free healthcare across India

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India's train hospital
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India's train hospital
Patients wait for their dental checkup on the Lifeline Express, a hospital built inside a seven-coach train, at a railway station in Jalore, India, April 9, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
A television screen is seen in the staff resting area on the Lifeline Express, a hospital built inside a seven-coach train, at a railway station in Jalore, India, April 2, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
Doctors perform middle ear surgery inside an operating theatre on the Lifeline Express, a hospital built inside a seven-coach train, at a railway station in Jalore, India, April 5, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
Patients and their relatives wait before the start of a cataract surgery on the Lifeline Express, a hospital built inside a seven-coach train, at a railway station in Jalore, India, April 2, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
Bhawri Devi, 41, travels home on a train after her middle ear surgery on the Lifeline Express, a hospital built inside a seven-coach train, in Jalore, India, April 7, 2018. "I was thinking that I had cancer in my brain. I had all kinds of thoughts. I went to the government district hospital, but there was no ENT surgeon. When I went to a private hospital they asked me for 50,000 rupees ($766). I didn't even have 5,000 rupees," said Devi. "I heard about this train a month back. It took me about 12 hours to reach the hospital from my village... I am glad that I will be able to hear my grandchildren's voice... I won't go deaf." REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
Patients with their eyes bandaged leave an operation theatre after their cataract surgery, on the Lifeline Express, a hospital built inside a seven-coach train, at a railway station in Jalore, India, March 31, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
Employees eat their lunch during a break on the Lifeline Express, a hospital built inside a seven-coach train, at a railway station in Jalore, India, March 31, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
The Lifeline Express, a hospital built inside a seven-coach train, is seen parked at a railway station in Jalore, India, April 2, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui
Bhawri Devi (L), 41, watches as her husband and son push an auto-rickshaw which got stuck in the sand on the way home, in a village in Jalore, India, April 7, 2018. "I was thinking that I had cancer in my brain. I had all kinds of thoughts. I went to the government district hospital, but there was no ENT surgeon. When I went to a private hospital they asked me for 50,000 rupees ($766). I didn't even have 5,000 rupees," said Devi. "I heard about this train a month back. It took me about 12 hours to reach the hospital from my village... I am glad that I will be able to hear my grandchildren's voice... I won't go deaf." REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
A government sub health centre is seen in a village in Jalore, India, April 6, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
A general ward is seen inside a government Primary Health Centre in a village in Jalore, India, April 7, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
Patients rest inside a recovery room after their middle ear surgery on the Lifeline Express, a hospital built inside a seven-coach train, at a railway station in Jalore, India, April 5, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
Volunteers from the National Cadet Corps wait to guide patients on the Lifeline Express, a hospital built inside a seven-coach train, in Jalore, India, April 2, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
A tailor works at his shop in a village in Jalore, India, April 6, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
Patients cover their eyes as they wait before their cataract surgery on the Lifeline Express, a hospital built inside a seven-coach train, at a railway station in Jalore, India, March 31, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
Bhawri Devi, 41, rests on the floor of her house after her middle ear surgery on the Lifeline Express, a hospital built inside a seven-coach train, in Jalore, India, April 7, 2018. "I was thinking that I had cancer in my brain. I had all kinds of thoughts. I went to the government district hospital, but there was no ENT surgeon. When I went to a private hospital they asked me for 50,000 rupees ($766). I didn't even have 5,000 rupees," said Devi. "I heard about this train a month back. It took me about 12 hours to reach the hospital from my village... I am glad that I will be able to hear my grandchildren's voice... I won't go deaf." REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
A man milks goats in a village in Jalore, India, April 6, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
Sanjay, 28, a staff cook, makes lunch on the Lifeline Express, a hospital built inside a seven-coach train, at a railway station in Jalore, India, April 9, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
A passenger stands in the door of a train in Jalore, India, April 7, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
Doctors perform middle ear surgery inside an operating theatre on the Lifeline Express, a hospital built inside a seven-coach train, at a railway station in Jalore, India, April 5, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
A man is administered an IV drip inside the house of an unregistered medical professional in a village in Jalore, India, April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
A woman leaves a government primary health centre in a village in Jalore, India, April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
A doctor performs middle ear surgery inside an operating theatre on the Lifeline Express, a hospital built inside a seven-coach train, at a railway station in Jalore, India, April 6, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
An auxiliary nurse midwife (ANM) stands outside a government sub health centre in a village in Jalore, India, April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
A woman speaks on the phone outside her house in a village in Jalore, India, April 11, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
Movan, 77, is helped by her relatives as she gets ready to leave for her cataract surgery on the Lifeline Express, a hospital built inside a seven-coach train, in Jalor, India, April 1, 2018. "I am never going to forget the name of this train, never in my life," Movan said. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
Kondal Rao Halewale, 52, watches news on his mobile phone on the Lifeline Express, a hospital built inside a seven-coach train, at a railway station in Jalore, India, March 31, 2018. "I have been working on the train for the last 25 years. I love travelling, going to new places. It's not a job for me as I enjoy it. I miss my family when I am not busy on the train. I am looking forward to meeting them after this project," Halewale said. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
Dharmendra Singh, an ophthalmologist, speaks on his phone as he rests after conducting cataract surgery, on the Lifeline Express, a hospital built inside a seven-coach train, at a railway station in Jalore, India, March 31, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
Auto-rickshaws carrying passengers leave a railway station in Jalore, India, April 8, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
A woman is administered an IV drip inside a government primary health centre in a village in Jalore, India, April 11, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
Patients register to be screened for cataract surgery by doctors from the Lifeline Express, a hospital built inside a seven-coach train, at a hospital in Jalore, India, April 1, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
A pharmacist sits behind a medicine distribution counter inside a government Primary Health Centre in a village in Jalore, India, April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
People wait for transport on a hot afternoon outside a village in Jalore India, April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
Movan, 77, is helped by a nurse after her cataract surgery on the Lifeline Express, a hospital built inside a seven-coach train, in Jalore, India, April 2, 2018. "I am never going to forget the name of this train, never in my life," Movan said. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
A patient goes through cataract surgery on the Lifeline Express, a hospital built inside a seven-coach train, at a railway station in Jalore, India, March 31, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
A patient walks past the Lifeline Express, a hospital built inside a seven-coach train, parked at a railway station in Jalore, India, March 31, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
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JALORE, India, April 12 (Reuters) - Bhawri Devi, an illiterate Indian laborer, thought she was dying when she started to lose her hearing last month.

She went to a government hospital near her remote village in the western state of Rajasthan to be treated, but it did not have a specialist doctor.

The nearest private hospital was in the neighboring state of Gujarat, and Devi was told her treatment, middle ear surgery, would cost about 50,000 rupees ($766) there.

"I didn't even have 5,000 rupees," said Devi, 41, who returned in despair to her home in Jalore.

Days later came news of visiting specialists who would treat her for free.

They arrived in early April as volunteers on the Lifeline Express, a seven-coach train converted into a rolling hospital that has crisscrossed India for 27 years to treat people like Devi living in areas with scarce healthcare.

Lifeline Express has treated about 1.2 million people since its launch in 1991 by the non-profit Impact India Foundation, said chief operating officer and doctor Rajnish Gourh.

In a country that spends just one percent of its gross domestic product on healthcare, among the world's lowest, the hospital on wheels fills a critical gap.

Like Devi, India's poor are caught between relying on a crumbling public health system trusted by few, or selling meager assets to fund private treatment.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government launched a scheme in February that aims to widen health insurance coverage to 500 million people, but critics say the plan is unlikely to work unless public health systems improve dramatically.

Until then, options such as Lifeline Express offer crucial support.

 

VOLUNTEER ARMY

Decorated with mahogany flower garlands, the sky-blue train parked at the sleepy station in Jalore could be mistaken for a new passenger train. Its medical facilities would rival many Indian public hospitals.

It employs 20 permanent paramedic staff, with most doctors volunteering from nearby medical colleges or hospitals.

Typically, it spends a month in a district, performing surgery ranging from cataracts and cancer to cleft palates and orthopedics.

The aim is not to compete with India's public health system, but support it. "We cannot have a hundred Lifeline Expresses in the country," said Gourh.

However, a second train will be launched in the next six months to cover the north and northeast, he added.

Railways Minister Piyush Goyal agreed to provide the second train at a meeting with Lifeline Express officials in February, Gourh said. The rail ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

The train gives volunteer doctors and medical students an opportunity to hone their skills while doing satisfying community work.

"Because we are working at the grassroots, we are exposed to different kinds of diseases," said volunteer doctor Mehak Sikka. "You get to learn more."

For patients like Devi, free treatment averts what could otherwise be a lifetime of suffering or death.

Feeling indebted to the young surgeon who treated her, Devi, clad in a bright yellow saree, joined her hands in respect before the doctor drew her into a warm embrace.

"I am glad that I will be able to hear my grandchildren's voices," Devi said, with a smile. "I won't go deaf." (Reporting by Danish Siddiqui and Sunil Kataria Writing by Zeba Siddiqui Editing by Euan Rocha and Clarence Fernandez)

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