Most of us would remember that one ‘viral photo’ which appeared across media a couple of years ago. It showed a tribal man carrying the body of his dead wife, with his daughter in toe. While many of us might have tagged it as one of those social media gimmicks, the ones who did trust the authenticity too would have by now forgotten about it.
It’s human nature to move on, alright! But there are some very exceptional ones among us who do not move on. They decide to take everyone along on the path to progress and well-being. Dr Aquinas Edassery is one such woman, who is working relentlessly to provide healthcare to some of the most unreached tribals of Odisha’s Kalahandi district.
Poverty, malnourishment, farmers’ woes, diseases, inadequate healthcare, and naxal activities are some of the many issues that plague Odisha, especially the western part of it. In the 1980s, Kalahandi became infamous for drought, child selling, malnutrition and starvation death and social workers coined the term — ‘Kalahandi Syndrome’ — the backward phenomenon despite the natural richness of Kalahandi. While the then Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao announced the famous KBK project for backward undivided Kalahandi, Bolangir and Koraput districts in the 1990s keeping poverty, backwardness and starvation death in mind, undivided Kalahandi district continued to remain largely ignored, politically.
In 2006, the Ministry of Panchayati Raj named Kalahandi as one of the country’s most backward districts. What then made Dr Edassery come here? “It is a kind of madness. It is difficult to answer the why,” she says with a smile. “I was an ordinary doctor trying to move up the ladder in the hospital I worked for. I wanted to pursue my DM after completing my MD, and so on,” adds Dr Edassery, who has completed her medical education from Bengaluru’s St John’s Medical College. The purpose of the college itself, she informs, is to educate doctors who will serve the poor.
After completing her graduation, she did have a short stint in the rural setup — in the peripheral villages of Bengaluru — “but that was limited.” She went on to complete her MD and began teaching at St John’s. “While working at the big hospital, I realised that this wasn’t helping people who are actually needy. Even the peripheral hospitals, where I did little work, were profit making units. So there I decided that I had to break away from this. It was a sort of an inner calling,” says the internist.
“So I left that and went to the community (very rural Karnataka) in the late ’90s. It was a very difficult decision since communication isn’t one of my strengths, plus I was a trained internist, so I was used to a hospital setup and had no idea of community health,” says Dr Edassery who then visited some community health centres.
Dr Raj Arole, who runs the Comprehensive Rural Health Project in Maharashtra’s Jamkhed, had a major impact on her. She then came back to rural Karnataka and imitated Dr Arole’s model, bringing down the mortality rates in the region.“By training grassroot workers, we could improve the health statistics decently. But we realised that it wasn’t such a badly served area and help could be reached in case of emergencies,” she explains the reason behind moving states.
After playing an administrative role in a Bengaluru hospital for seven to eight years, she happened to read journalist P Sainath’s book Everyone Loves a Good Drought, and “something within me moved and I finally made the hard decision.”
At an age where people retire and make plans to relax, she embarked on a new and supremely challenging journey in Odisha’s Kalahandi district. “It was a leap into the darkness. I first went to Bilaspur and worked with Jan Swasthya Sahyog (JSS) for two years before setting up Swasthya Swaraj,” she explains, adding that she consciously wanted to keep the organisation away from any kind of corporate or religious affiliations.
What began with her, a nurse and a lab technician, was later joined by a couple of doctors from Maharashtra’s NIRMAN society. Now it has more doctors and health professionals working in the most remote regions of the Thuamul Rampur block of the district. Malaria, Tuberculosis, and malnutrition are just some of the pressing issues plaguing these tiny villages and hamlets.
“There was no health service in these remote regions at all. So this was a very crucial yet scary step. But when you are in the right direction, things fall into place. Accessibility and the difficult geography of the region were major challenges. “The death rates were a very rude shock — hardly any elderly people existed in these villages. I insisted that we reach the neediest, and today things are slightly better,” says the optimist in her, who also “hopes against hope that someone comes and takes this forward.”
Speaking of the other challenges, she says that the government officials would initially look at her with suspicion but they have “now grown comfortable with our presence.”
The only forward in healthcare, according to her, is by beginning to get our data right, and then implementing some of these excellent schemes and programmes that we already have in place.