How this Kerala doctor-couple is empowering a TN tribal community

Regi George from Chengannur and Lalitha from Tripunithura met while studying at Government T. D. Medical College, Alappuzha, Kerala. While he specialized in anaesthesia, she became a gynaecologist. The Christian boy and Hindu girl married in 1987 against their parents' wish. Though they hailed from wealthy families, they decided to do something for the poor through their medical profession. While Regi had been inspired as a youth by the stories of Albert Schweitzer and Mahatma Gandhi, Lalitha wanted to be the first doctor in a place where there was none.

While serving in Kasturbai Hospital in Gandhigram of Dindigul district, Tamil Nadu, in 1987, they met villagers coming from far away villages for treatment even for preventable diseases like diarrhoea and pneumonia. After visiting many hospitals in the country, the couple realized that hospitals don't give priority to prevention. They decided to go to the Sittilingi Valley in Dharmapuri district of Tamil Nadu in 1992. They realized that the two lakh tribals living there had a high infant mortality rate of 147 per 1000 babies and the highest maternal mortality in India. Cut off from the rest of the world, these Malaivasis (hill folks) had to travel 50 km to Karur to visit a hospital. Regi and Lalitha decided to serve these tribals.

Since the couple had no money to purchase land, they settled in a two-room hut built by the tribals on government land. Patients were examined on a bench in one room under a 100 watt bulb. They charged the minimum for medicines from those who couldn't afford their fee. Though some Malaivasis were initially suspicious, the doctor couple's concern and effective treatment won them over. With no school nearby, the couple home schooled their two sons till class four before they were sent to a boarding school.

Regi and Lalitha then decided to help the villagers take care of their health themselves. The couple pioneered the Tribal Health Initiative (THI), which empowered tribal villagers to take care of their community's health. They trained local tribal women as health auxiliaries. Since deliveries were conducted at home, these health auxiliaries visited those homes and ensured hygiene and sanitation. Complicated pregnancies were immediately rushed to the hospital.

With donations pouring in from good Samaritans, Regi and Lalitha built a well-equipped 35 bed hospital, which has become "a hospital built for and by the tribals", serving nearly one lakh people every year in a 50 km radius. Thanks to the donations, patients have to pay very little. 95 per cent of the staff are local tribals who get gratuity and provident fund, too, in spite of not receiving any aid from the government. Now the infant mortality rate has reduced to 20 per 1000 one of the lowest in India. And hardly any mother dies during childbirth. They also run an old age insurance scheme, providing free healthcare for a mere Rs 100 per year.

Besides improving the tribals' health, to better their financial status and community well-being, the "jungle doctors" started various initiatives like organic farming, farmer insurance policies, a coaching centre, vocational training in crafts, plumbing and welding and schemes to preserve their culture and dying arts.

"Our minds were full of doubts when we started," says the khadi clad Dr Regi. "But we had sincerity of purpose. Sometimes you have to close your eyes, trust yourself and take that leap of faith. There is a crying need in our country and we need to extend a helping hand. After two decades of work in rural and tribal areas, my wife and I have more happiness than regret."

Credit : F.M. Britto (The Teenager Today)

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Teenager makes the lame walk

A fatal car accident fractured his thigh bone and tied the five-year-old kid to bed for days. Reeling in pain, Veer Agrawal couldn't walk about like his companions.

Later, the grown-up Veer was reminded of the agony he had experienced whenever he saw any lame child. His parents could treat him; but what about those who cannot afford to pay?

Veer learnt that in India there are three crore people affected with physical disabilities; nearly 70 per cent of India's disabled live in villages; most of them suffer from a high level of stigmatization with poverty and that disabled children are five times more likely to quit school than the national average.

The involvement of his grandparents and parents in social action influenced him. Veer was also inspired by the support given to needy students by Brother Joseph of St Catherine of Siena Orphanage, Bandra West, Mumbai. Why can't I too do something for those who can't walk, wondered the ninth grade student of American School of Bombay..

Veer learnt about the Jaipur foot from a distant relative, and that one foot costs around Rs 5,000. His father and friends assisted him in starting the website for crowdfunding. He was surprised to see funds flooding in aid of the economically disadvantaged handicapped persons - a whopping 14 lakh rupees!

Veer organized a three-day Jaipur Foot Camp at Risod in Maharashtra, conducted by the Seth Bhagwandas J. Agrawal Charitable Trust, a non-profit organization. 350 poor people, who could not walk, turned up for the camp. Doctors fitted 300 of them with the prosthetic leg.

And those who could not be fitted were provided with free wheelchairs.

"The sheer joy I saw in the eyes of these people who could move around filled me with a deep sense of happiness and pride," says Veer. "Many of them had lost both their legs. Some children at the camp were younger than ten years of age. I am very grateful to all those who funded the project," says the excited Veer.

Thanking Veer and the organizers, one of the beneficiaries, Devika Bhabhachine, said, "I hope that Veer continues his good work and reaches out to many more people who need it." Young Veer responds, "I believe that every human person deserves a chance for a better future regardless of the circumstances he/she is born in. No disability should leave them behind."

Credit : F.M. Britto

Picture Credit : Google

Sanitation work's son commissioned Army Officer

Bijendra Kumar, father of Sujeet, still remembers the moment which was around 10 years ago when he told other villagers that he was sending his son to a school in Rajasthan so he could study and become an Army officer. Most of them laughed at him and said: "As a sanitation worker he is thinking too big."

On June 12, Bijendra Kumar grinned as he watched his 21-year-old son, Sujeet, a graduate from the Indian Military Academy (IMA) in Dehradun, become the first Army officer from his village of Basila. Bijendra Kumar is a sanitization worker and his wife is an "Asha worker".

Kumar told the media in an interview, "I held a broom, but my son will protect the country with his guns." The family huddled around the television to watch the Passing Out Parade as the family members of the Gentleman Cadets (CGs) were not allowed to be present during the ceremony due to Covid-19. Sujeet expressed his feeling and said, "I would have loved to see the pride and the smile on my parents' face."

Sujeet will soon be posted as Army Ordnance Corps and he hopes that his achievement will motivate more youngsters in his village to don the olive green uniform. Kumar said that he had already inspired his siblings. All his siblings are now preparing for competitive exams.

Kumar has taken his other two children to Varanasi in the hope that they access to better education facilities.

Kumar said, "My wife lives alone in the village, as she has to look after the health of people in that area. We do visit her once in a while but we have decided that we will do everything in our power to help our kids get the career they want."

After seeing his elder son becoming successful, now Kumar is confident that his family's dreams will come, true. He said, "I know all my children will achieve what they aspire to one day. Challenges can only make people stronger. My elder daughter finished school two years ago but I couldn't arrange money for medical coaching so she is studying on her own for MBBS. My younger daughter wants to become an IAS officer while my younger son wants to get into IIT."

Credit : The Times of India

Picture Credit : Google