How Chutki, Dholu Molu and Chota Bheem are helping Nutritionists feed kids with cancer in times of social distancing

In February 2020, MNJ Cancer Hospital in Hyderabad received a new patient, a six year old girl named Ruthika. The oldest child of Srikanth, a barber from the Karimnagar district of Telangana, Ruthika and her father travelled two-hundred kilometres to seek treatment for her unknown ailment. Her cheeks too swollen to eat solid food, Ruthika’s diagnosis was bleak. According to her doctors, she had a rare form of blood cancer known as Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia and needed urgent chemotherapy. A few weeks later, Ruthika was admitted and began treatment, meeting Cuddles nutritionists Anusha and Aneesha as a result.

Over the phone, Anusha describes the special relationship she built with Ruthika. During their first meeting, Ruthika hid behind her mother’s pallu, too scared of the loud hospital, busy nurses, and commanding doctors to leave her mother’s shadow. Slowly, Anusha coaxed Ruthika out, speaking to her in animated tones and gesturing playfully, wrapping her in a warm hug. Anusha’s face was how she communicated with the hundred in-patient children at MNJ who received nutritional support from Cuddles whilst undergoing cancer treatment. Always smiling, Anusha would encourage them to eat their meals and supplements, motivating the little soldiers to keep fighting. Ruthika grew to love Anusha, and would wait to see her during morning rounds before chugging her glass of milk, expecting to hear a proud “arre wah!” from Anusha as a reward.

However, in late March, Anusha and Aneesha were no longer able to visit MNJ Cancer Hospital. The lockdown prevented them from seeing Ruthika, amongst so many other patients. Over the phone, Anusha counselled Ruthika’s parents, even video calling Ruthika when she drank her milk to motivate her. Sounding touched, Aneesha and Anusha detailed how frequently their patients asked about their return to the hospital, Aneesha lamenting, “I wanted to go into the hospital everyday to see the kids but without an E-Pass, we did our best to support them over the phone.”

A few weeks later, Aneesha and Anusha were able to come back to the hospital. Bristling with excitement, Anusha shares – “As soon as I entered the ward, the children were so happy to see me, and all the kids shouted – Food madam aa gai, Food madam aa gai!” Though Aneesha and Anusha were back at work, things were far from normal. Hospital staff were required to wear a mask at all times and maintain social distancing. No longer able to communicate with their faces or with a comforting hug, Cuddles nutritionists needed to radically alter how they interacted and encouraged the kids. The solution was puppetry!

Puppetry is a powerful medium of communication. The voice of a character helps bring out the natural imagination and curiosity in a child. Puppets help children become better listeners and improves language skills. To teach Cuddles nutritionists about puppetry, Aarti from Tickles&Tales led an hour-long session on Zoom on using finger puppets. According to Aarti, puppetry is just about how you can draw eyes, nose, mouth on your fingers and how you use them to narrate short stories by creating characters. Aarti adds, “The main thing that I found practical, which has also worked for me professionally is using a character. You build a personality around this character puppet, and you can use it to interact with children, and you can also use it to interact with the concepts. Things like teaching them good eating habits, or it can be teaching them about hygiene, even good and bad touch. We can probably use two characters for dos and don’ts.” 

Anusha details using this technique with Ruthika, “When I arrived back at MNJ, Ruthika would not even smile at me because of my mask. She could not understand my emotions. Over the previous week, she had stopped drinking her milk and I needed her to resume her intake, as she was starting her second round of chemotherapy. Quickly, I drew a glass of milk on one thumb and a smiley face on the other, and used that to demonstrate that if she drank her milk, she would be happy. If she did not drink her milk, she would be sad.” The use of finger puppets was a hit, Ruthika even making her own to teach her friend Meenakshi, another Cuddles patient, about the importance of nutrition. 

Aneesha details how she uses this art of storytelling to make the children smile. Weaving her stories around Chhota Bheem, Chutki and Dholu Molu, she used puppetry to break the barriers of social distancing. Tearing up on the phone, Aneesha explains what being a Cuddles nutritionist means. “There are so many challenges working in the health sector, but when children improve that gives me joy. Our patients’ lives have become our lives, their happiness is our happiness. Spending time with them and seeing them gives me a sense of purpose. The challenges are forgotten when our children get better.” With sincerity she adds, “This job has changed my life”.

Author: Malavika Seshadri for Cuddles Foundation.

About Shreya Gupta

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