“If hundred patients come to see me at the hospital, I know there are many more people out there who are not able to make it to the hospital,” says Dr. Sr. Aquinas Edassery, who is out on her mission to reach the most needy and the most unhealthy.
To find them, she’s going to places where there are no roads, where the first four-wheeler that the people saw was the jeep that she came in, where teenage mothers are dying during childbirth and where the death of children under the age of five is heartbreakingly high.
She could have chosen retirement or even a simpler task at the age of 61, but three years ago Dr. Aquinas gave herself the most challenging task of her life. She chose to work for the tribal people living in the forests of Thuamul Rampur Block in the district of Kalahandi, considered to be an appallingly backward region in Odisha.
“It was not an easy decision to make, to move to a remote corner of the country that lacks basic facilities, to gain the trust of the tribal people and work with them, and not knowing the local language. People who get job transfers here consider it to be a punishment transfer,” she says.
But Dr. Aquinas knew this is what she wanted to do because this is where the need is the most.
Even while she worked in St. Johns Hospital in Bangalore, she went beyond institutional boundaries to reach out to the people of Kollegal in rural Karnataka. She and her friends did dedicated groundwork in training grassroots workers on primary healthcare. She got to see how maternal and child mortality dropped in those years of work in Karnataka. Carrying this experience, she decided to dedicate all her time and efforts to uplift a people who are in real need of this service.
Her talks with friends and colleagues and her research unfolded the Kalahandi chapter for her. In Kalahandi’s Thuamul Rampur block, the primary health centre has just one doctor and one nurse. Most of the women have unassisted deliveries at their homes. The place is has rampant malaria cases — people do not know how it spreads or that it can be cured. Tuberculosis is rampant too. Deaths are eerily silent. “Someone had to step in and start doing things,” says Dr. Aquinas.
Dr. Aquinas and her two colleagues Sr. Angelina Thomas, a senior lab technician, and Sr. Biji Mery, a senior nurse, moved to Thuamul Rampur in 2014. They started their NGO ‘Swasthya Swaraj’ with a small office in the town of Bhawanipatna. They set up two medical centres in the region that are equipped to provide high quality healthcare, 24/7 and has a laboratory to carry out primary investigations.
“But we cannot always sit in the clinic and expect patients to walk over 50km to come to us. Especially, children and pregnant women cannot travel, so we decided to go to them,” says Dr. Aquinas.
The team goes out on two jeeps into the deepest tribal pockets of Kalahandi. Some places are so remote that the jeep has to be parked at a place from where the team has to walk five to six kilometres to reach the villagers. “In the monsoon seasons, making inroads into the villages become all the more risky. But we are not here to do half-hearted work. If we had not taken the effort, many children would have died. All difficulties are all forgotten when we see are able to save the lives of precious babies and young mothers,” says Dr. Aquinas.
The team is always on the move, one village after the other. They use the help of postmen to give them updates on the health of the villagers. If there are any medical conditions that need urgent attention, the jeep with doctors rush to them. The clinics have a one-day per week schedule of OPD and those days are a riot. “We see 200 patients in a single day. Consultation, lab tests and reports, medical advice – we are literally on our toes to get it all done before it is time for the patients to catch the last buses to the villages,” says Dr. Aquinas.
“Apart from non-availability of basic medical facilities, if you look at the larger picture, literacy rate here is an abysmal 9%, people are ignorant, and girls get married and become mothers in their teens. You need to see the problem from a wider perspective. That’s why we spend 50% of our time in providing medical facilities and 50% in creating awareness,” says Dr. Aquinas.
One of the main philosophies behind Dr. Aquinas’ work is to make the villagers self-sufficient to handle their basic healthcare needs. That’s what the name of her NGO, Swasthya Swaraj, stands for too. To make them empowered to handle their own needs, she and her team are training 80 young tribal women to become primary healthcare providers in their villagers. These women, mostly illiterate, already know how to diagnose common illnesses, identify high risk pregnancies early enough and alert the medical team.
A team of 20 young men have been chosen as healthcare communicators to educate fellow villagers on how to stay healthy and control malaria, tuberculosis and leprosy. Another programme, called Tulsi, is aimed at bringing a sense of empowerment to adolescent girls.
On the whole, the villagers are getting empowered with the knowledge through awareness. “That’s what we want. I tell the villagers in my broken Kui, the tribal language, that we are outsiders. We will go away one day and that it is their responsibility to empower themselves,” says Dr. Aquinas.
Dr. Aquinas is hopeful that the tribal people of these villages will find themselves awakened and empowered. “There is a certain kind of an awakening that is taking place in the region. Many people are coming forward to support, people are showing receptiveness and the government is helping too.” Around 14,000 people of 76 villages, selectively picked based on their backwardness and remote locations, are benefitted by the work of this 65-year-old doctor. “No, my age is not what matters. As a doctor, it matters to me that people benefit from my service.”
Dr. Aquinas’ NGO has no affiliations to any church nor is their service religion-based. But there is one religion that she thinks that the world should follow and that is something that she has learnt from the tribal people. “They worship mother earth as god and do not destroy nature for their benefits.”
You can get in touch with Dr. Aquinas at firstname.lastname@example.org.