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Jim Olmsted

Former RI president helps send hundreds of volunteers around the world to perform 67,000 surgeries, examine 250,000 patients

When Rajendra Saboo finished his term as president of Rotary International in 1992, he started thinking about how he could continue to help people. And by 1998, after serving as Rotary Foundation trustee chair, he knew he wanted to do something hands-on. 

“When I was Rotary president, my theme was Look Beyond Yourself,” says Saboo, a member of the Rotary Club of Chandigarh, India. “I was thinking about service beyond borders. So I thought, ‘Is there anything that India can give?’ I realized that medical science in India is fairly advanced, and there are doctors — Rotarian doctors — who could give something to Africa, where the medical needs are tremendous.”

During a 2016 mission to Kigali, Rwanda, Saboo demonstrated that he had overcome his discomfort with blood to become an effective member of the medical team.

Saboo talked to Nandlal Parekh, a fellow Rotarian and a physician who had worked in Uganda before being forced out by dictator Idi Amin. Parekh thought Uganda, even though it was still in the midst of a civil war, would be an excellent place for a medical mission. The trip that Saboo organized in 1998 was the start of 20 years of medical missions and over 67,000 surgeries.

To accompany him on that first trip, Saboo assembled a team of surgeons with experience performing corrective surgery on patients with polio, as well as a team of ophthalmologists. Then, a few days before they were scheduled to depart, terrorists bombed the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing hundreds of people. A third attack, in the Ugandan capital of Kampala, was foiled.

“We were terrified,” he says. “The doctors were also saying, ‘Should we go? Will we be safe?’” 

Then Saboo’s wife, Usha, talked to a woman who had returned from volunteering to help people wounded in the war in the former Yugoslavia. Usha asked her if she had been afraid.

“You die only once,” the woman replied. “And it is the way you die that matters. I did not find any fear at the time, because I was serving humanity.”

“That answer hit Usha,” recalls Saboo. “She told me about it. Then we called a meeting where she recounted her conversation. The doctors and the volunteers said, ‘We are ready to go.’”

They arrived three days after the bombings. From Kampala, one team took a bus four hours east to Masaka, while another went north to Gulu to perform eye surgery. The local hospital hadn’t seen an ophthalmologist in seven years. Some of the old women danced after their eye surgery because they had never seen their grandchildren.

Saboo, who has no medical training himself, got squeamish when he saw blood. But the team needed all the volunteers to pitch in — by washing the dirty feet of children in preparation for surgery, loading patients on stretchers, helping to start the IV drips, and doing anything else that needed to be done.

“Madhav Borate, who was the leader of our medical mission, said, ‘Raja, change your clothes and come to the operating theater. You have to hold the patient’s wrist while we are operating and monitor the pulse,’ ” Saboo recalls. “I said, ‘Madhav, are you mad? I can’t even stand seeing someone receiving an injection. I can’t stand the sight of blood. I would faint.’ ”

Borate recalls that day too. “The operating rooms were lacking in monitoring equipment, including a device called a pulse oximeter,” he says. “So we decided to train three Rotarians to feel the pulse of the patients and inform the anesthetist if it became too fast or too slow. We started referring to the volunteers as our pulse meters.” 

“I saw blood,” says Saboo. “I saw everything, and nothing happened to me. That changed me totally.”

In 2015, Rajendra Saboo and his wife, Usha, were inducted into the Arch Klumph Society.


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Established as a Rotary Structured Program in 1971, Rotary Youth Leadership Awards (RYLA) is Rotary's leadership training program for young people. RYLA is being held this year from May 17-19 at Camp Upham Woods in Wisconsin Dells. The Rotary District 6250 RYLA program is a camp designed to build future leaders and Rotarians who exemplify the four-way test. If you know a high school sophomore who would benefit from leadership training, please refer them to RYLA!!  Please contact Mary Van Hout at for more information.


Rotary Youth Exchange

Exchange Programs - Inbound & Outbound
  • One year coincides with school year
  • Students live with three families typically
  • Opportunity to learn a new culture and language, to be an ambassador & to make friends for a lifetime
  • It's a year of adventure
  • Rotary District 6250 sends and receives students to/from 40 countries
  • RYE plays an important role in world peace & understanding. Once you have experienced another culture, judgment of others & their culture diminishes
"If every 17 year old were a youth exchange student, we would have no wars." Karl-Wilhelm Stenhammer, RI Past President
  • Youth Exchange Officer (YEO) Focus on administration & finding/orienting host families
  • Youth Exchange Counselor (YEC) Focus on student's interaction with families, school & Club
  • Youth Protection Officer (YPO) Focus on student's wellbeing
Candidates For The Program
  • Not YOUNGER than 15.5 on August 1
  • Not OLDER than 18.5 on August 1
  • A minimum 2.75 GPA or student ranking in top 50% of class
Ways Club Members Can Help/Participate
  • Host a student
  • Transportation to meetings, events, etc.
  • Include student in your plans
  • Invite to dinner
Rotary District 6250, as part of the Central States Rotary Youth Exchange program, sends and receives students to/from 40 countries:
Donna Brendemuehl
Club Youth Exchange Officer
Connie Smith
Club Youth Exchange Counselor
(C) 608-719-9411
Mick Faulhaber
Youth Protection Officer