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)
Picture Credit : Google