As a child, walking hand-in-hand with her father down the hallways of Bombay Hospital in India, Paula Dhanda forged her resolve to become a physician. The manner in which her father, a surgeon, served both the city’s large indigent population and its most impoverished rural citizens further shaped her dreams. “I remember feeling left behind because I was too young to accompany my father to outlying villages, but I saw the way he responded to the desperate people who came to our doorstep for help,” she recalls. “When I was older, I observed him in surgery and this confirmed my resolve to become a physician.”
Today, Paula is following in his footsteps, dedicating her life to improving the quality of healthcare for women and children at home and in some of the most underserved areas of the world.
Paula was born in 1958 in England. At the age of two, she moved with her family to Bombay, India, where they remained for 13 years. Paula completed the high school education she had begun in India at a Catholic high school in Batavia, New York, navigating both culture shock and her parents’ divorce.
In college, she earned her master’s and medi- cal degrees, specializing in obstetrics and gynecological care. Though she found professional success in a Beverly Hills medical practice, Paula moved in 1990 to Lake County, California. Explaining the move, she says, “There was a shortage of physicians, no one providing obstetrical and gynecological care, and very limited care for the indigent population.”
Wanting to help people both locally and globally, Paula traveled to Chad with a colleague who told her there was a great need there for women’s care—especially for women at risk of dying in childbirth. “I had witnessed the medical complications of poverty-stricken people in India as a child, but as an adult I saw everything through different eyes,” Paula says. “When I returned home I was shell-shocked, saddened, and wanting to do more. I wanted to sell everything I owned and move to Africa.”
Understandably, her husband and children did not embrace her plan, so Paula channeled her desire to help into founding the nonprofit Worldwide Healing Hands.
In its first four years, Worldwide Healing Hands has led teams of medical volunteers to partner with and train local medical staff in Chad, Haiti, and Nepal. Paula is now planning a mission to Sierra Leone where Healing Hands will work with West Africa Fistula Foundation to perform corrective surgery for fistulas and train midwives to help prevent this profoundly devastating condition. “Mothers suffer and die all over the world in childbirth of the same preventable causes,” Paula says. She shares two stories about women thousands of miles apart facing many of the same risks.
In the rural California hospital where Paula operates, a woman was hemorrhaging after an emergency C-section. The woman was at risk of bleeding to death, and her life depended on blood being flown to the hospital from a major medical center. “We took her back to the operating room for another surgery while life-saving blood products were delivered and she was stabilized,” Paula recalls. More than 3,000 miles away, a different woman was brought to a hospital in Haiti where Paula was volunteering just after the 2010 earthquake. The woman, who had delivered twins, was experiencing seizures and at risk of dying. Paula was able to stabilize the woman and, once the crisis was over, she reflected on how close this young woman came to leaving her sons motherless.
“Challenges such as these are everyday occurrences in many areas,” she says. “But my mother raised us to believe that we could accomplish anything in life if we worked hard and persevered. As a physician, I am committed to a life of service and to raising awareness of the great need for medical care around the world… if we all just help a little bit, we can change the world.”
By Elizabeth Share on the website Unsung Heroes of Compassion 2014