Dr. Nandakumar and his wife, Dr. Shylaja Devi always had a plan. It was to work in the USA until they could save $100,000. Once they had saved the amount, they would retire to India and spend the rest of their lives serving those in need.
Nandakumar wanted to work at place where nobody would consider heading to. So while Shyla was pursuing her MD in the USA, he travelled to different places in India to understand the needs of the people.
A few of his friends from his alma mater Christian Medical College, Vellore, told him about a community health programme at a village called Gudalur. He became curious, wondering if this could be his “dream village”.
Gudalur Valley is a paradise situated in the tri-junction of the three South Indian States of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka. It is home to over 25000 Adivasis.
The five tribes that constitute the valley Paniyas, Bettakurumbas, Mullukurumbas, Kattunaickens and Irulas are active citizens who seek ways to better their lives. They were on the lookout for a means to bring good quality healthcare amongst them, when Nandakumar and Shylaja arrived on scene.
Landing in Gudalur Valley
At that time, a community health programme had been started by a doctor couple Deva and Roopa in the nearby adivasi villages. The program trained village level Health Workers (HW) from the community itself, to identify and prevent illnesses like diarrhoea, to provide immunisation and nutrition to pregnant women and young children, and generally to improve health awareness among the community.
Despite its success, there were inevitable cases needing hospitalization – high-risk pregnancies, acute cases of diarrhoea and fever among children, amongst others. The doctors used to refer such patients to the local Government hospital. But in those hospitals, the doctors were often not even around.
Dr. Shylaja recalls the Government hospitals as a place where one went and returned “feet first” – meaning you’d be wheeled out on a bed as you were dead! Referral to the private clinics, were expensive.
So when Dr. Nandakumar and Dr, Shylaja arrived, the village was about to have their prayers for a hospital answered in an unexpected way. Looking back, the couple laughs at how naive they were to think that $100,000 would have been enough to run a hospital. But they received enough donations and government funding for the tribal community to keep going.
Healthcare at Gudalur
They started as a small community health programme primarily targeted at training tribal women on women and child care issues. The programme grew into ASHWINI (Association for Health Welfare of the Nilgiris), now comprising of a 50 bedded hospital and 8 Sub-Centres.
But the most incredible part about ASHWINI is that it is an institution owned and managed by the people themselves. The doctor couple trained young girls in the community, but it wasn’t easy. Many of these girls did not even have a basic understanding of Math or English and had to be taught from scratch. A cake was cut to pieces to explain fractions so that they could calculate drips!
From a one-bed facility in 1986, the hospital is now complete with a delivery room, operating room, outpatient rooms, lab (to run samples for diabetes, anaemia, sickle cell, and TB), pharmacy, daycare, and a nursing school.
The work this couple has dedicated their lives to has changed the valley. Maternal mortality and infant deaths in the region are lower than the national average. Diarrhoea deaths have almost ceased.
But what matters the most to them is that the Adivasis come voluntarily to the hospital rather than running away or preferring to die unnecessary deaths in the security of their own little verandahs.
Their success serves as a testament to the change that can be made by empowering people to help themselves and providing them with the knowledge and tools to do so.
You can contribute to the incredible work being done by Dr. Nandakumar and Dr. Shylaja at Gudalur.