Cycling doctor changed direction after chance meeting with leprosy patient

When Dr Stephan Fabes set out on his adventure of a lifetime his plan was to learn about health care around the world.

Four years into his six-year bike tour across 75 countries the medic from St Thomas’ Hospital in London felt compelled to change direction because of  the people he met -  those on the margins of society.

One of those who led Dr Fabes down the new route was Ranjeeta Tamang whom he met in Nepal.

The 28-year-old had accepted her fate – spending the rest of her life within the confines of her home because she had leprosy.

She was luckier than most, she believed. Others like her who were diseased had been thrown out by their families and were forced to beg on the streets to feed themselves. At least her brother and father had let her remain in her own home.

Ranjeeta told Dr Fabes she was just 16 when she discovered a white patch on the skin of her face.
No one knew what it was, so they assumed it had to be a curse from the Gods or the result of some terrible sin committed by her ancestors.

Slowly her fingers were eaten away and she was left with just stumps on her hands. Her legs were covered in ulcers and were so deformed that she could not walk.

Her companion was her wind up radio that a visitor to the house had left behind many years earlier.

One morning her ears pricked up while listening to the wireless. The programme was about a disease that was ‘easily curable ‘. Ranjeeta listened intently and realised suddenly that the leprosy they talked about was exactly what she had.

Excited at the prospect of being cured she begged her brother Nairn to take her to a doctor. Nairn agreed. He carried her along the three-mile mud track to a main road, where they got a on a bus.

Four hours later the pair arrived at a surgery where a doctor confirmed it was leprosy and referred her to Anandaban, a hospital supported by the UK-based charity Leprosy Mission England and Wales.

It was here that Dr Fabes met her when he took a detour and decided to cycle to the hospital en route to India.

“When I arrived at Anandaban I decided to spend the day talking to the patients,” said the 35-year-old, from Summer Town, in Oxford.

“I wanted to know their story - how they came to be in the hospital, the stigma and prejudice they suffered and about whether and how they got any education.

“The most interesting story was of Ranjeeta’s who was being treated there and who got her education from a radio.”

Until that moment Dr Fabes, who gained his medical qualification from Liverpool University in 2005, had intended to visit hospitals and medical centres to learn about healthcare in other parts of the world.

“As I started visiting projects through contacts of mine I realised that almost all the people I met were on the edge of society as a result of infectious diseases. Physically and socially they were not part of the mainstream society. I wanted to know find out how that affected their health. Be it leprosy, in Nepal or mental health, in India they were marginalised for different reasons. I began to get interested in finding out how marginalisation affected health and disease.”

Dr Fabes, who only returned to the UK once during his six-year journey - for a knee operation four months after setting off - said the encounters sparked  his  interest in marginalised people.

“I felt it should be tackled. I knew there were problems but I was surprised at the extent of it. Hospitals that were looking after people with TB, for example, a condition that can affect anyone,  so clearly associated it with the strength of the relationship between the disease and poverty that it surprised me.”

Dr Fabes admits the travel has not just broadened his mind but also changed his perspectives and priorities.

He is now more interested in the world – in international health care and international development and he want to tell the story of the people he met.

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