Cecil De Santa Maria, COO, ORRA |
In 2013, Purnota Dutta Bahl started Cuddles Foundation to provide nutrition to child patients at Tata Memorial Hospital. Her organisation now works in 43 hospitals across India.
Mumbai: While on a sabbatical from a successful corporate career following the birth of her daughter, Purnota Dutta Bahl visited the Tata Memorial Hospital (TMH) in Parel. She and her husband had been donating to the premier cancer care hospital, and so when the hospital invited her to visit the children she was supporting, she agreed.
“In room after room, I saw stories that were completely shocking,” Bahl recounted. There were children with IV drips, most looking very frail, all of them bald. One child reminded her of her own infant, and Bahl was distraught. That is when she found out there was a huge gap in donor-funding targeted specifically at nutrition for paediatric oncology patients.
After first tapping friends and family to collect boxes of protein supplements, when the CSR arm of a company offered to support her, Bahl picked the name of her non-profit on the spot, after a soft toy her daughter was playing with.
Cuddles Foundation was born in 2013, working only at TMH first, then scaling up rapidly. In two years, they were at five hospitals, and now at 43 hospitals, all run by the government or charitable organisations.
“Nutrition is often confused with meals,” said Bahl, explaining Cuddles Foundation’s model wherein a nutritionist paid by the foundation but placed at the hospital assesses the grade of malnourishment of every paediatric cancer patient. Each child is given a specific nutrition prescription that may include over-the-counter products as well as food items. “Kids are not able to eat the calories they require once the side effects of chemotherapy start,” Bahl said, “so we provide whatever is on the prescription.” In-meal supplementation includes eggs, bananas, buttermilk, lassi, etc, all designed to arrive at the correct calorific value of every meal as per the prescription provided by the 60 nutritionists employed by the foundation.
Additionally, Cuddles provides each child a ration basket, adequate for a family of four for a month, in order to account for the financial distress most families face in providing for other family members during one child’s battle with cancer. When they noticed that mothers frequently ate street food outside TMH, Cuddles began to provide a hot meal for a parent as well.
Nearly 76,000 children and adolescents are estimated to be diagnosed with cancer every year in India, with as many as 40% of them also malnourished. Research shows that the survival rates for children being treated for cancer are higher when treatment includes nutrition care.
In 2015-16, Cuddles Foundation won a national award for child welfare for its impactful work.
In 2022-2023 alone, 82% of Cuddles Foundation’s beneficiaries maintained nutritional status despite the side effects of chemotherapy or radiation, and 97% of beneficiary children followed up on their treatment plan when nutrition care was included in the plan.
In 2022-23, 61% of children who Cuddles reached were undernourished at the time of the first intervention, including 40% severely undernourished children. In 2022-23 alone, Cuddles engaged with more than 16,300 children, and conducted 1,85,000 counselling sessions.
Bahl said a couple of challenges have persisted along her journey—funding, particularly because the clock resets each year as donor funds are not carried forward to the next year; and the difficulty of finding well-trained and capable staff that a non-profit can afford.
Despite the challenges, Bahl has set herself ambitious targets. In the coming five years, she hopes to see Cuddles Foundation reach 80% of paediatric oncology patients across India, going from 43 to 80-odd centres.