In 2002, I was working as a doctor conducting HIV research at University of North Carolina Hospital in Chapel Hill. During the winter holidays, I attended a health summit in Tamil Nadu, India. One thing led to another, and I ultimately gave up my job at home to stay and work as a junior medical officer in the charitable Kasturba Hospital in India for three years. I also gave up a decent salary to work for pittance wages, but somehow I feel a lot richer for the experience.
How did I come to turn my life change so drastically? I had given a lecture on diabetes at a health summit in India where I met Dr. R Kausalya Devi, a gynecologist who works with some of the poorest people in the world. As a token of appreciation, she gave me one rupee coin safely knotted in a corner of her saree. We talked more that day, and she persuaded me to visit the charitable hospital where she lived and where she served.
If you are ever in Kasturba Hospital, which is in Dindigul, Tamil Nadu, South India, take a good look around. Odds are if you look hard enough amid the hoards of uniformed nursing staff, doctors making rounds, and administrators shuffling by, you will notice someone like Mr. Murthy. When I worked there, Mr. Murthy worked in the medical records division. He had no legs so he would use a slab with wheels to move himself around, pushing himself forward with the help of his right hand on the ground. There were no wheelchairs. Every day he was on time to work and he would say “Good morning!” with a happy smile.
Mr. Murthy’s optimism is a classic example of this charitable hospital’s reputation for spreading of hope and the spirit of optimism. Dr. Kausalya Devi, aka Amma (which means mother in Tamil), is an octogenarian, managing director, and a happily unmarried woman who has devoted her life to empowering the rural underserved population, from those she hires to those she treats. Every staff that worked with her at the hospital has their own sad story. Domestic abuse. Widowed. Orphaned. Disabled. Amma listened to their stories and helped to change their lives around, providing a safe haven to abandoned women, men and children. She educated them or provided them with the skills needed to work at the hospital. No one was paid well, but they knew Amma was transforming their lives. She is a volunteer at the hospital. She starts her day at 6:00 in the morning. She gave up breakfast at age sixty and lives on a glass of buttermilk and a light meal later in the day.
There are no words to describe the rural patients that I would attend to at the hospital. They believed in the doctors immensely. What saddened me was the deep ignorance that the patients were in. I was attending to a new patient once who came about to give birth at the wee hours of the night. There was neither a history of any medical records with her nor a record of any antenatal visits made to the doctor. Infact she did not know how far in to pregnancy she was.
This is the reality of some of the cases in the rural area that do not come to surface. I would have the empathy and respect for these patients; sometimes I would not know how to respond to them except make sure the mother and the baby are fine and hoped and worked so that each one of them received basic health education. By doing so, I have attained freedom and contentment by spending more time in giving than acquiring things. The rural hospital accepted me with open hands and the experience has helped me evolve to a person conscious of the community needs.
I made a visit to the hospital on December 2009 and met with Amma. I had taken a self-monitoring Blood Pressure device for the hospital, and she was astonished to see that this device existed. She asked me to use it on her and was amazed to see the readings on the screen as she tried to figure out how it all worked.
At eighty, Amma still attends to the patients who seek her blessings, she still shakes hands with the elders who find solace in doing so, and she still brings joy to the children in the hospital, orphanage and the adoption home. Having served in this hospital for almost three years, I knew she is exactly whom I want to be. I may seek more modern amenities—and a richer diet—and as cliché as it seems, but she showed me that you can acquire a lot by giving. I’ve learned from Amma to find gratification in simplicity. Shouldn’t we all be teaching this to our children?
I am no longer in rural, poor India. I work in public health in Georgia, but my overseas experience has molded me to be a strong advocate of the poor here, and to listen intently to the needs of my new community. And yes, I still carry around with my every day my greatest treasure, which in some ways has grown to symbolize all that I have learned. My first gift from Amma: the one rupee coin.
About the Author
Dr. Nazeera Dawood has a Masters degree in Public Health from University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and her Medical Doctor degree from Bangalore University, India. Currently, she is leading the Division of Health Promotion at the Fulton County Department of Health & Wellness.
Published: March 3, 2013