Dr Abdul Bari Khan, co-founder and current CEO of Indus Hospital, does not seem to like attention; this is evident within minutes of meeting him. Sitting in his office in Korangi, the site of Pakistan’s first paperless hospital, he requests that this interview be less about him and “more about the projects, please.”

Dr Khan’s office door freely swings open and shut, even during the interview: people, mostly doctors, walk in and out with complete familiarity. Sometimes, they take a seat on the couch in the corner and listen to him relate his story; sometimes, they even complete his sentences, fill in the gaps, offer details, contradict him, insist that “this was the way it actually happened.” There is the sense that this is not a one-man show — that Dr Khan’s story is not just his own, that it is inextricably linked to other people, and that it is the story of Indus Hospital as a whole.

“Let me tell you about Bari Khan as a young man,” says Dr Zafar Zaidi, who was a year senior to him at Dow Medical College. “He rode an absolute stinker of a motorcycle which he would always park outside the mortuary. He’d spend all his time in that place, dissecting dead bodies — always cutting, cutting and cutting.”

There is a ripple of laughter in the room. “Yes, I suppose I was a surgeon from the very get-go,” muses Dr Khan, smiling good-naturedly.

The highlight of Dr Khan’s time at Dow Medical College, where he was a student from 1981 to 1986, was his involvement with the student-run Patient Welfare Association (PWA), where he was in charge of the blood bank. Blood donation had the taint of taboo at the time: he recalls instances where fathers would threaten their sons, telling them not to donate blood even if it was the only way of saving their wives’ lives, otherwise they would kill them. The business of blood was instead run by ‘professional donors’, a racket of drug users who would sell their blood to feed their addiction needs.

“They would donate twice a week, at times,” recalls Dr Khan, his lip curling in distaste. “You can imagine what sort of haemoglobin level that blood would have had.”

When these ‘donors’ went on strike, agitating for a raise in their rates, it was the students at Dow Medical who came forward and began donating blood. What ensued was a movement of sorts leading to the establishment, for the first time in Pakistan, of a tradition of voluntary blood donation. For a while after, Dr Khan and Dr Zaidi recall, collectively, the student organisers of the blood drives would move in groups, fearful that the addicts, the aggrieved original ‘donors’, might try to harm them.

In 1986, Dr Khan graduated; he was now a certified MBBS. That same year, twin bomb blasts ripped through Karachi’s Soldier Bazaar, setting a precedent of violence that has only increased in recent years. “It was horrific,” Dr Khan recalls. “It was then that we realised just how ill-equipped the emergency ward of the Civil Hospital was.” When the then Secretary Health came to visit, “he was besieged by students who locked him up in a room and made to beat him,” he remembers.

The PWA took over the task of completely renovating and modernising the casualty of Civil Hospital, Karachi. The task required an amount of Rs3,274,500, which was raised by going door-to-door, classroom to classroom.

The Accidents and Emergency ward was inaugurated in July 1987; it were schoolchildren who were invited to cut the inaugural ribbon. “We thought of calling the chief minister and then decided against the idea — in the meantime, three chief ministers came and went,” Dr Khan recalls with a laugh. He remembers the moment when the board went up above the ward: as they called out to the workers to “lift it up from here, fix it from there,” the four friends made a pledge to one day run their own hospital.

Today, more than 20 years later, Indus Hospital stands spread over 20 acres of land in Karachi’s densely populated Korangi area. Two things make it unique: one, that it is paperless; two, that it is completely free of cost.

The idea of a hospital operating solely on donations, on the goodwill of society, appears ludicrous — and frankly, unsustainable. But the structure at Korangi stands as defiant testimony to the fact that it can be done. Dr Zaidi says that initially, within that group of four, it was only Dr Khan who had unwavering faith in the feasibility of the project.

Work on the hospital began in May 2005 — some months later, on October 8, an earthquake flattened large parts of the north. The outpouring of money and support from large sections of society convinced the others. Dr Zaidi remembers calling Dr Khan from Balakot, where he was helping transport 14 containers that had been converted into operation theatres, to tell him that he too now had faith.

“Well, I’m glad you believe now,” quipped Dr Khan then. “I wish you’d believed sooner so that this catastrophe didn’t have to happen for you to start believing.”

Dr Khan says that he is a simple man, who simply believed. “I deal in billions of rupees — but I don’t have billions of rupees. You ask me, how much is one billion rupees? I will have to write it down and count the zeroes.”

He remembers another story about the time when he was in charge of expanding the operating facilities at The National Institute of Cardiovascular Diseases (NICVD). “I had three months to complete the project — and within that time frame, there was one month when there would be no work. I remember that (the head surgeon at the time) Surgeon Rehman would tease me, tell me to hurry up. Khanakharaab, patients ki line lagi hui hai, he would say.”

Dr Khan’s nikah was scheduled for the week after the completion of the project. The family had already gone to Peshawar by that time; he had to set up the house for his new wife.

He had a debt of about 500,000 on his head for the hospital — and he had as yet no way of paying it. He tried to go to bed but kept waking up, his heart racing. He prayed to God and went back to sleep. The next morning, he says, he got a call from a friend, who wanted to visit. When he heard about Dr Khan’s current project, he donated the promised amount. “These things happen all the time,” Dr Bari insists, his voice tinged with wonder.

Dr Khan’s wife is also a doctor. What is her specialty? Before he can answer, there is a shout from the couch — “Dr Bari ki doctor!” — followed by the eruption of laughter. Before he got married, his friends insist, Dr Khan would be in a state of perpetual disarray: his beard would be going in one direction, his clothes in another. He’s smartened up ever since, they say.

Dr Khan, who takes this teasing with characteristic good humour, does feel that he owes a great deal to his family. “It is difficult to get things done if there’s constant nagging at home,” he says with a rueful smile. He has three children: two sons and a daughter. “I’ve seen them grow like this,” he says, putting his hands on the table, then spreading them further apart. “In the morning, [when I left for work], they’d be sleeping — and sometimes, at night [by the time I came back from work] too. Then one day you catch a glimpse of them standing upright and you think, ‘Oh wow, you’ve grown…’ ”

Do they also want to be doctors, like their father? “The elder two do, yes,” he says. “The younger one wants to be an engineer.” He pauses. “But he’s young,” he adds, smiling impishly. “He’ll come around.”

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