When I first came to know that Purnota had quit her full-time corporate job to found a not-for-profit providing nutritional care for children with cancer, I became curious. I had known her distantly as someone who went to college with my husband. Being one who finds herself frequently deliberating full-on involvement with a social cause at some point, this curiosity had me sitting with her soon enough.
“How difficult was the decision”, I quizzed her, “and why do this at all?”
She immediately admitted that she still gets jitters, thinking about her first encounter with a baby with cancer. At the same time, that is what also gave her the mental determination to take the plunge. A chance visit to Tata Memorial Cancer Hospital was her tipping point which, luckily, also resonated well with her husband, making the decision a shade easier.
“We went there to meet a family that we were supporting. I saw a baby in her mother’s lap; not the face, just the feet. They looked exactly like my little girl’s, down to the black thread that we tie around it. That was like a moment of epiphany for me. I realized my child could have been there.”
Being mother to 2 daughters, I had also seen the agony of the disease up-close and personal when my mother-in-law lost her battle with it. Purnota’s account struck a definite chord with me.
When Purnota started her research into child cancer, she realised that while funding for cancer medication is still available to those who need it, there is a gap in the awareness and funding for nutritional care for these patients.
She explained to me that most people do not know that nutrition is the stepping stone to curing cancer.
“Do you know that about forty percent of children with cancer lose their battle to it because their little bodies are not able to endure chemotherapy due to malnourishment? After their treatment starts, they get into episodes of toxicity, seizures, infections of the gut etc. You can have all the funds in the world to provide treatment, but if bodies are not able to withstand it, eventually they will not survive. Most people will not mind donating for the treatment but when it comes to donating for food, they prefer feeding the poor instead.”
Again, these are the challenges that make her work both difficult and gratifying.
It takes an unwavering focus on the big picture and a structured thought process to address the real gaps preventing the desired impact, and not get carried away into doing what everyone else is setting out to. As I talked to Purnota, I could already sense her MBA mind trying to solve this, despite the context not being that of the for-profit sector.
“To me, the need for Cuddles Foundation was apparent”, she states as a matter of fact.
That was how Cuddles was started in 2012.
Cuddles is a young start-up, with many young employees and volunteers motivated by passion and compassion putting in a lot of effort. The high demands of starting anything can be both emotionally and physically draining. Work of this nature can also take a toll on the personal front. Recently, Purnota gave birth to twins. She is quick to admit that she has amazing teams both at the office and at home, who help her keep it all smooth-sailing. Purnota’s husband, who also helps with the foundation, is a big moral support and gets her through the tough times.
“As they say, you have the most time when you have no time! With 3 kids at home now, I have become a timetable Nazi, prioritizing what is important, dealing with the urgent, and not sweating the small stuff.”
Purnota sounds extremely proud and upbeat about what Cuddles has achieved so far. Each case has its highs and lows, shares Purnota through Aditya Bhalerao’s story. Aditya comes from a poor family and has been fighting with a type of cancer called Burkits Lymphoma. His father denied the responsibility of Aditya’s treatment and, so, his mother had to take a stand to give her child a chance to survive. When Aditya started chemotherapy, he was severely malnourished. Cuddles planned a high-protein-high-calorie oral diet for him. As his treatment progressed to second phase, Aditya developed severe mouth sores, leading his food intake to deteriorate significantly, causing weight loss. He was not able to have even a sip of water. A total parenteral nutrition was then administered, wherein nutrients are intravenously injected. Fortunately, this helped; Aditya’s blisters were treated and he started eating like before. Cuddles Foundation continues to support him with nutritional supplements after his discharge from the hospital. He was able to gain his lost weight back, and his body is dealing better with the chemotherapy now. Aditya’s mother sees her son play and laugh like before.
The Nutrition Program run by Cuddles Foundation is already having a visible impact on the ability of children undergoing cancer treatment. In a recent study, it was seen that treatment abandonment rates significantly fell from 24% to 4%, as a direct result of the meal program at Tata Memorial Hospital Mumbai. While it started 3 years ago as a personal initiative by Purnota, the Foundation’s work has grown far more than even she had originally envisaged.
The Foundation presently works with some of the biggest government hospitals in Mumbai and Delhi (TATA Memorial Hospital, AIIMS, etc.). It provides nutrition, supplements and meals for children with cancer. It has also got involved in capacity-building: sponsoring specialists to these hospitals, who administer nutrition, while guiding parents in making healthier choices for their families. Importantly, the Foundation invests considerable time and effort into talking to corporates and the public about the issue at hand.
“So, what next?” I ask Purnota. She tells me gleefully about the future roadmap.
“When I started Cuddles Foundation, I did not know much about running a not-for-profit, but I knew a lot about owning and managing a product as a marketer. So the vision for Cuddles Foundation as a brand is to be like any other big ‘Clean’ brand like Charity Water, or TOMs. I heard the founder of Charity Water say something incredible; ‘A brand of toothpaste is sold with more sophistication than all the largest causes in the world’. And that is so true! In the Indian context, our vision is to change that. So, every bit of marketing collateral of Cuddles is built as a stepping stone to a large, coherent brand that people can trust. Ultimately, though, it is the work we do that will build the brand. In the next 5 years, our vision is to support 10,000-plus cancer children with all the nutritional care that they require.”
Cuddles has also had some big Bollywood celebrities endorsing and campaigning for it. When asked about Alia Bhatt’s recent involvement, Purnota says: “Alia is young. She still has a lot of youthful innocence and passion for good. She heard about what we were doing and readily endorsed the cause. It definitely helped us draw a lot of attention to the issue of malnutrition for kids afflicted with cancer.”
“How can we best support Cuddles, or get involved?” I ask.
“Become a Genie for our kids, and give them lots of cuddles!” she laughs back. She requests people to consider spreading awareness, and contributing with their time and money to the cause. As little as INR 2500 (US$40 / S$50) can support the nutritional needs of a child with cancer for over a month. Donors can also choose to adopt an entire program for a period of time; like funding the mid-day meal program for a few months. The Foundation has seen fund-raising support in all forms: pledging of special occasions and birthdays, running of marathons, offering of golf lessons and so on.
Giving can be especially gratifying if you can see results. Cuddles Foundation therefore ensures that donors know exactly what happens with their money and also get to see regular reports on the progress of their funded programs.
Do you wish to be the difference in the life of a child with cancer?
For more information on the Cuddles Foundation, you can visit www.cuddlesfoundation.com or reach out to Purnota Dutta Bahl at firstname.lastname@example.org
4) 3) http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2FBF02723805#page-1
5) Pics courtesy Facebook page of Cuddles Foundation.