Zelma Lazarus

Lifeline Express- World's First Hospital Train

Zelma leads the ‘Impact India Foundation’ for the underprivileged. She has worked in various capacities in the fields of social communications. Her wish is for each state to have its own access to the resources for a healthy and productive life.

“There is one thing which gives radiance to everything. It is the idea of something around the corner” – G.K. Chesterton.

The scarcity of proper medical facilities, the reluctance of healthcare professionals in less-lucrative rural areas and the lack of healthcare education demonstrated the poor health of the population in 80s India. During this time, her boss nominated a young general manager in TATA to run a rather open-ended project entitled ‘Impact India.’ With no funding and no direction, she was given the painstaking duty of making something out of nothing. She was thrown into the deep end with only her “Stick your neck out” attitude to save her when she felt that there was no hope. Mrs. Zelma Lazarus’ wish was to reach out to the most underdeveloped places in India and provide people with essential medical care. However, did such a person even exist who could grant her this fantastical wish? The odds were stacked against her yet she could see the light at the end of the tunnel.

On a flight to India in 1990, Dr. Patrick Rozario started to make conversation with the person he sat next to. Little did he know that he was talking to Zelma, the only person who could have fulfiled the doctor’s wish of reaching people on the Himalayas. Without any hesitation, Zelma was happy to volunteer a van to Dr. Patrick’s cause; the only condition was that she had to come along. In fifteen days they performed forty operations, twenty-three in critical condition, on the bus now appropriately titled ‘Cure on Wheels.’ Zelma was amazed by the extent to which a small van could help such a deserving population on the highest reaches of a mountain and wanted more of this service to the remotest places in India. On her way back home in Delhi, the few hours she had to spare brought about an audacious visit to the Hon’ble Railway Minister and simply stated, “I want a train.” George Fernandes, the Minister, greeted her with a look of utter surprise and confusion. Beyond belief, the railway office was able to fulfil her request - a sign that her perseverance paid off.

Within the next few days, she was presented with an invitation sponsored by the minister to return to his office. Overjoyed, she arrived at the office with an official escort and just when it looked like her wish was granted she was presented with two old coaches. In order to repair these vehicles, Zelma would have had to sacrifice a lot of time and money - both of which a newly founded organisation did not have. Instead of letting this disappointment get to her, a reporter was able to broadcast Zelma’s train-story through local newspapers and gain support from a military officer in London. He was more than happy to donate steel reinforcements to her otherwise un-sturdy train. In this effort, she instantly achieved foreign recognition for her new project, the Lifeline Express. Literally and figuratively, she got the support she needed to build a strong foundation for her dream train.

Earlier in the 80s, prior to this event, marked a time of the Polio epidemic in India. In fact, almost every second child suffered from it and there was no adequate medical attention available to counter the rampancy of the infection. A large number of young children were dying simply out of their inability to gain access to proper vaccinations. This matter concerned Zelma to target this issue first. She travelled state-to-state trying to convince Government officials to implement Polio vaccinations to the local population. To her surprise, most high-level officials denied the fact that their state was in need of any Polio vaccinations at all. In Madras, however, she approached the Minister of Health, Dr. H.V. Hande who, unlike other officials, emphatically agreed to start her mission for a Polio-free area.

An estimated ninety-two percent of the children in Madras had not been vaccinated, making Zelma’s mission a big leap into the unknown. While the word “No” may mark the end for some people, Zelma interprets the word “NO” as Next Opportunity. She discovered that her “next opportunity” was to advertise her Polio-free mission to the masses reluctant to get them vaccinated and asked the Chief Minister for help. It resulted in a large turnout at her vaccination facilities. Thus, she conquered the impossible and spread the revolutionary idea to states all across India to encourage a healthy lifestyle for all ages. With this, the Impact India Foundation finally cemented its purpose and Zelma established her life is calling. Polio was only the first step of her journey- to conquer the high disability rates due to preventable illnesses.

No step in a momentous journey is short of obstacles and Zelma had plenty, one of them - balancing private and public partnerships among other factors. Building her Impact India team was a challenge in terms of having to choose the perfect personnel who would stick by the organisation in sickness and in health. The projects of Impact were vast and Zelma needed perfection from the team who took ownership of everything they did. The confidence in her people answered the question 'how.' Zelma did not rely on trust; instead, she believed that if someone were willing to help she would let him or her. With her glowing smile, her unquestionable good faith, and hope, Zelma made the organisation synonymous with a healthy and productive lifestyle. Impact India set a precedent for countries such as China and Africa where they have institutionalized many hospital trains; as well as in Bangladesh and Cambodia where they have implemented riverboat hospitals. Thus, people from India, as well as other countries have great reverence for Impact India and the Lifeline Express as it gives them a second chance at life itself.

2017 - The Impact India Foundation completes thirty-four years of treating patients free of cost all over India, with the help of private-public partnerships. Zelma's experience as General Manager in TATA was a different ball game in itself that led her to become the CEO of this foundation revolutionizing the system to tackle medical issues at their root. Rural India has no resources to take proper care of their loved ones during illness until Impact India established this system. Therefore, occupying a very prestigious and influential position in the Indian lifestyle. In its thirty-four years, Impact has been able to reach over a million helpless people. Although an astounding number, it represents only a small fraction of the billion+ people that live in India currently. The mission is far from over, but the fruits of their labour are showing. Ten years in the future, Zelma's wish is for each state to have its own train in the hope that every person has access to the resources for a healthy and productive life.

During her career, she has gained the title of the World President of the International Public Relations Association (IPRA) - the first Asian woman to do so. She has been the recipient of awards including the United Nations Grand Award for Excellence in Public Service, the Golden World Trophy for Excellence in Internal Communications from IPRA in London. Among other recognitions, and the Lifetime Achievement Award for Public Relations and Corporate Social Responsibility by the Association of Business Communications of India (ABCI) to name a few of Zelma's many notable accomplishments. She has also been invited as an international orator for seminars in universities and public platforms including the United Nations.


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