Armed with an MBA from the Indian School of Business, Purnota Dutta Bahlic was passionate about marketing from the start.
In 2010, she took a break from her career to get through a difficult pregnancy and spend time with her newborn daughter.
“After a few months I wanted to do more. My husband and I supported the treatment of children at Tata Memorial Hospital,” Purnota told SocialStory.
This life-changing time led her to establish: Hugs Foundation — a non-profit organization dedicated to providing food and nutrition to underprivileged children battling cancer in government cancer hospitals.
“I had never seen so many children with cancer in one place,” says Purnota, “the picture is very stark.”
At the hospital, she saw a baby in the pediatric ward who was about the same age as her child, and they both had black ones daga (thread) tied at the same feet. “That was the dramatic moment when I thought I could have been there with my daughter; it’s just a coincidence,” she says.
Moved by what she saw, Purnota spoke to the social worker about how she could support these children. Although they had sufficient financial resources for treatment, they needed money for food.
The duo did their best to meet their demands. However, it soon exceeded what they could afford, and they began tapping into their networks to contribute.
“I started to really enjoy what I was doing. I built something from scratch that felt really meaningful,” says Purnota.
Initially, the Cuddles Foundation joined forces with dr. Brijesh Arora, who led the nutrition for children with cancer initiative in India. “Then came Unlimited India, who got me on board as an investment as a social entrepreneur,” she adds.
Soon, Cuddles began his pilot project at the Tata Memorial, and as it delivered on its promise, it replicated the same across India.
Coping with childhood cancer
In a country where Cancer is diagnosed in 50,000 children each year different challenges stand in the way of healing. Purnota points out that malnutrition during treatment puts them at greater risk of infections, side effects and treatment delays.
At the moment, the Knuffels Foundation FoodHeals program bridges the nutritional gap in children with cancer in 35 government and charity hospitals in 20 cities across India.
In the past year, it has given nutritional advice to more than 6,000 patients.
The FoodHeals program is adapted to the needs of each child. In the partner hospitals, children seeking cancer treatment are screened to assess their nutritional status.
After evaluation, these hospitals draw up a “nutrition prescription”, containing the correct nutritional therapy and an adapted nutritional plan for the child.
The Cuddles Foundation supports the child and the family through nutritional supplements, hot meals and monthly ration bundles. It also checks the child’s nutritional status and re-evaluates if necessary.
Purnota says that families from all parts of India are flocking to cities for cancer treatment, resulting in income disruption for the families already facing financial constraints.
For Cuddles, providing support to the patient’s family is also an important part of the support structure.
The organization’s work is supported by brand partnerships with companies such as Mondelez and Nestle and corporate supporters such as Bajaj Finance and ICICIA Foundation, which include one or more hospitals in the program.
Swara is one of the many children supported by the foundation. The five-year-old from Baramati was diagnosed with cancer and her family moved to Pune for her treatment.
Her father had spent all his savings on her medical exams and travel. She weighed less than what she should have been at her age and only used 23 percent of her energy needs. She also experienced side effects from chemotherapy, including loss of appetite.
After participating in the FoodHeals program, Swara’s family received help in the form of a monthly ration. They were also given advice on how to improve her diet.
As the COVID-19-led lockdown had just begun and resources were hard to come by, Swara’s parents were relieved that they didn’t have to worry about feeding the family.
After a year of regular counseling and nutritional support, Swara has entered the maintenance phase of treatment and is back home in Baramati.
Increase the impact
Technology is an integral part of the organization’s interventions.
Hugging Foundation FoodHeals app helps nutritionists conduct nutritional assessments. This unique app is one of the first in the world, Purnota says, “built for our people in a developing country.”
Through the app, they hope to train doctors and nurses to administer nutrition in places where providing a nutritionist can be difficult. It is currently used by nutritionists in all partner hospitals.
She points out that one of the challenges facing the organization is the lack of pediatric nutritionists. “We launched our own nutrition school, the Cuddles Institute for Clinical Nutrition (CICN),” she explains.
It aims to train nutritionists, doctors and nurses in pediatric oncological nutrition. The Institute has trained more than 100 nutritionists and has collaborated with nearly 250 physicians through college group webinars and sessions.
As an organization, Cuddles Foundation hopes to eventually reach 100 percent of children undergoing cancer treatment in hospitals across India.
“We have some very strong partners on board, such as the HT Parekh Foundation, who want to change the way we do nutritional interventions or treat childhood cancer in India,” Purnota emphasizes.
She hopes that with the support of more partners, Cuddle Foundation can achieve its ambitious goals.
(Name changed to protect privacy.)
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