Reader's Digest Profile:

"He Never Stops Caring"

Reprinted with permission from the September 2000 Reader's Digest (Asia).
Copyright © 2000 by The Reader's Digest Assn., Inc.

For Jack Preger, a British physician helping Calcutta’s poor, the struggle is everything.

"I've met many people who've faced opposition in their efforts to help others," says Ashok Mahadevan, editor of the Indian edition of Reader's Digest,
"but no one who's been as systematically harassed as Jack Preger. Fortunately he's really tough – truly a soldier for the good."

A faded green sari wrapped tightly around her frail body, Sakila Bibi sits on a low stool and stares at a large gray-white ulcer below the toes of her outstretched right foot. The slightly stooped, silver-haired Englishman kneeling beside Sakila gets up.

“Gangrene’s about to set in,” Dr. Jack Preger tells me. “If part of her foot isn’t amputated immediately, she’ll lose it all.” Sakila, a middle-aged woman, is one of two dozen leprosy patients who’ve come this humid morning to the charity clinic that Jack Preger runs in Calcutta.

With bamboo poles holding a tarpaulin roof and a blue plastic sheet covering the dusty ground, it’s a makeshift affair. But the treatment is not. Only the most effective anti-leprosy drugs are dispensed while stumps and sores are expertly cleaned and bandaged.

The clinic, however, does no surgery, and Preger considers where to send Sakila. Calcutta’s over-crowded public hospitals are of no use: he tells me they demand bribes, and indigent patients are seldom admitted. The only surgeon at the nearby leprosy hospital, run by a charitable organization, sees new patients on Tuesday and Thursday. Today is Wednesday.

“Still, it’s her best chance,” Preger says, telling an aide to take Sakila there. “We’ve got to try.” As Preger gently leads Sakila to the clinic’s battered four-wheel-drive vehicle, I think about how he never stops trying his best for the poor and disadvantaged. In the nearly 30 years he’s been on the Indian subcontinent, hundreds of thousands have benefited from the medical clinics, elementary schools, job-training programs and rehabilitation centers that he’s established. Preger has also lobbied for improvement in prison conditions, spoken out against religious persecution and unearthed a child-smuggling racket.

He’s been awarded an MBE (Member of the British Empire) from the British government and won media accolades. But Preger’s achievements have not come easily. Indians are often suspicious of Western do-gooders, and the Englishman has been harassed by detectives, forced out of the country, even flung into jail. Authorities have tried to block his funds and close one of his clinics and schools. Yet he’s always smiling, always joking – always caring.

Later we’re standing at the back wall of Tala Park, a Preger clinic specially for women and children. Preger motions me to look through a hole in a corrugated iron sheet. Inside I see laborers digging up an empty lot.

“A developer is building a block of flats,” Preger says. “And since nobody wants a street clinic at their front door, we’ve just received an eviction notice. We treat about 180 patients here every day. The mayor has even commended us for our work. But none of that matters.”

For Preger, the threat to Tala Park is especially worrying because finding space in Calcutta is increasingly difficult. “It may take us a year,” Preger sighs. “Meanwhile, our patients suffer.” One-year-old Gauri Das lies quietly in her mother’s arms, her enormous black eyes full of tears. Three weeks ago, Gauri’s mother Sandhya tells Preger, the girl put her right hand in the kitchen fire. Treatment available locally where they live hasn’t done much good.

“Let me see,” Preger says. I wince at the sight of the tiny hand – red and swollen, leaking pus and fluid. Shaking his head, Preger asks Siobhan Condron, an Irish nurse, to bandage the wound. Condron is one of a half-dozen foreign volunteers working for Calcutta Rescue (CR), the organization founded by Preger. CR employs about a dozen local doctors, but Indian nurses, pharmacists and physiotherapists are harder to come by. So health-care professionals from Europe, America and Australia serve for up to a year at a time.

Their dedication is astonishing. Alita Sluimer, a Dutch nurse, fell ill a month after she started at CR. Thinking she had the flu, she ignored her condition until nearly collapsing. She returned to the Netherlands where she was finally diagnosed with malaria, which can be fatal. Sluimer stayed home only long enough to recover and a few weeks later she was back in Calcutta. “Dr. Jack is a great inspiration,” she tells me.

Even after they return home, many volunteers raise money for Calcutta Rescue. “We have support groups in around 12 countries,” Preger says proudly. Until recently, authorities did not grant tax exemption to local donations, so CR gets little money locally – nearly all its funding comes from overseas.

“How do you say ‘very good’ in Bengali?” the volunteer asks. Four children, waiting to see a doctor, sit around her with coloring books.

Preger settles down beside the slender, brown-haired young woman, dressed Indian-style in a loose shirt and baggy pants. “Khoob Bhalo,” he says, greeting her. Then with a sweep of his arm, he adds mock-seriously, “And if you’re very good, my dear, one day all this will be yours.”

He is talking to his daughter Anna, fresh out of school in France. She’s here in Calcutta to help him for a few months. But Anna has seen relatively little of her father over the years. She was raised by her mother, who divorced Preger when Anna was eight. This was Preger’s second failed marriage. “My personal life,” he freely admits, “has been one big mess – largely of my own making.” Yet, in fact, it was the collapse of his first marriage that started Preger on his long journey to Calcutta.

After his wife left him, Preger, an Oxford economics graduate running a farm in Wales, became deeply depressed. He began reading the Bible and yearned to restore meaning to his life. Then one day, he says, “I suddenly knew I had to become a doctor.” At 34 that would not be easy – but he completed his training eight years later, in 1972.

He soon went to Bangladesh, where a bloody civil war had left a huge number of refugees, beggars and other social rejects. Preger threw himself into the work. He set a gruelling pace. Once, ravaged by typhoid, he hallucinated for days.

But the toll on Preger was not just physical. Another time, a guard at a shelter run by Mother Teresa refused to admit two dying famine victims because it was past 6 p.m. An enraged Preger grabbed the crucifix hanging from the man’s neck and twisted it until the man started to choke.

“In the name of Christ,” Preger roared, “let us in!” Terrified, the guard complied.

In early 1977, hearing rumors that the Bangladeshi branch of an international child-relief charity was smuggling children out of the country, Preger gathered evidence implicating a number of well-placed Bangladeshis. He presented this to authorities, and began writing articles about corruption in government-run vagrant homes. Such temerity could only have one result: he was arrested and forced to leave the country. But he made his way back to the subcontinent, setting up shop in Calcutta, India.

Preger began with a couple of small soup kitchens and a small street clinic.

Today, Calcutta Rescue has a staff of 166, including 12 doctors. With a $400,000 annual budget, CR runs three elementary schools and two vocational-training centers. Five clinics provide medical care for over 300 patients daily.

Still, Calcutta Rescue must go to the Supreme Court for protection from a familiar adversary, the Indian government. For several years it has been trying to block the organization’s access to foreign funds, claiming that CR has violated regulations. According to Preger, the real reason is Calcutta Rescue won’t pay bribes.

This imbroglio is one of many over nearly two decades. In June 1981, the Indian government ordered Preger to leave the country. But since the order didn’t specifically prohibit him from returning, Preger re-entered India five days later.

Furious, authorities threw him in jail. Only after eight days was he released on bail. Characteristically, the first thing he did after being freed was to give some of his clothes to a poor prisoner he’d befriended. The case wound its way through the tortuously slow Indian legal system. Many people expressed support for Preger’s work including Sir Edmund Hillary, Everest’s first conqueror and New Zealand’s High Commissioner in India. But it was still more than eight years before the Indian government’s charges against Preger were dropped.

Preger approaches a young woman sitting by the roadside, a scrawny infant asleep in her lap. “How do you feel today?” he asks.

“Better,” Shyamoli Gayan replies. “My stomach hurts less, and I can breast-feed my baby.” Shyamoli lives in a shack next to one of Calcutta Rescue’s elementary schools. Three days ago, soon after the delivery of her baby, Preger found her lying outside her home, groaning with pain, and took her to Tala Park.

I walk over to the one-room school, where an exam is going on. Just then, an eight year old rushes up with his paper. “I failed the last exam,” Pintu Das confesses, then adds proudly, “but this time I did well!”

Some 70 children attend classes in two shifts. Every day, they and the 240 youngsters at CR’s other two elementary schools get a free meal. “That’s necessary,” explains the teacher, “since they don’t get to eat much at home.”

A staff meeting of Calcutta Rescue is under way as Preger enters the room.

There is an uncomfortable silence. “Dr. Jack,” someone says, “Asgari died last night.” Preger’s face pales. Twelve-year-old Asgari Khatoon, who’d had a serious heart problem, was a favorite. A few months ago, it became clear that unless her mitral valve was replaced, she didn’t have long to live. Since private-hospital costs were astronomical, Preger decided to use a government hospital, which charged much less. CR didn’t have the funds to pay for the operation, so two Dutch volunteers raised the money from friends in Holland.

Nearly a week after the operation, Asgari hadn’t regained consciousness, and worried that she wasn’t getting the best care, Preger decided to shift her to a private clinic. But the government hospital refused to release her immediately. The girl quietly passed away without waking up.

A week after Asgari’s death, a question long haunting me can no longer be suppressed. “How can you bear all this indifference and hostility to your efforts to do good?” I ask Preger. “What keeps you going, even in the face of failure?” For a while, Preger is silent. Then he shakes his head, as if to rouse himself. “God doesn’t judge you by the results,” he says softly. “Different circumstances lead to different results. What matters is the struggle, that you try. And if you try, God will never forget you.”