Samvida Venkatesh, a 16-year-old student reporter for the online magazine ‘The Alternative’ interviewed me for their Work With A Purpose series. Here’s a snapshot of the published piece.
Entering the medical profession is in itself a daunting task, and then serving in rural areas makes it that much harder. What inspired you to take up medicine? How did you overcome the lure of big money and a city job?
It was 1982 when I finished my PUC – I had done well, but I didn’t achieve my dream of entering IIT. Disappointed, I joined BMS Engineering College in Bangalore – and on my very first day, I was ragged so badly that I didn’t have the courage to go back in there. I couldn’t stay at home or spend time out on the roads, so I cycled into the Ramakrishna Ashram. I spent my next couple of days there, hiding out in the library. To keep myself occupied, I read the works of Swami Vivekananda, and within a few days, I had finished all the volumes. Inspired by his work, I resolved that if given a chance to take up medicine, I would go to the villages of India and work for rural development.
As if a sign from God, the next day there was a telegram from the Director of Medical Education asking me to join the Mysore Medical College immediately. Only two years later, in 1984, a group of other students and I started the Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement (SVYM) with all the benefits of our inexperience.
As a young doctor from the city, you were probably on the receiving end of hostility from the locals. How did you earn the villagers’ trust?
I didn’t start working with a government hospital. I set up everything on my own, so lack of facilities was not a problem for me. The real challenge was to establish myself. The locals were initially hesitant to trust me, unsure if I was a real doctor or a hoax, whether I would simply leave them in a while or not, but two situations redeemed me in their eyes.
One day, a woman came running to me with a limp six-month old baby in her arms. She explained that she had been washing clothes with a large vessel of water. Her baby was balanced on the washing platform when he suddenly toppled into the vessel and drowned. I was not in the clinic when she approached me, so I didn’t have any medical equipment to work with. I quickly performed some CPR and thankfully, the baby was revived. This sent a message to the people that I could actually save lives.
The second one led the tribals to believe I was some kind of God. A man had been bitten by a snake when he was walking in the forest, and his fellow locals were confused as to what to do. Snakebites weren’t too common, and the tribals’ procedure for dealing with them was expensive and involved the sacrificing of two chicken. Since I was the cheapest option available, they came to my clinic a couple of hours after the incident. I realised that if it had been a poisonous snake that had bitten the man he would not be alive. Even otherwise, I did not have any antivenin with me. Thinking quickly, I filled a syringe from an anti-tetanus vial and injected him. He walked back home satisfied with my ‘magical’ injection. The tribals did not realise that the snake had probably been a non-poisonous rat snake.
WHO statistics say that there are only 6 trained practitioners per 10000 people in the country. How are we going to ensure healthcare for all in this country?
I believe that health should not be the role of only medical practitioners. The biggest role in health is played by the people themselves, and not by trained doctors and medical professionals. The ideal medical system should be able to function even without a doctor, simply with the self-sufficiency of people.
What are your views on the National Food Security Bill that is going to go through Parliament on Aug 20th?
The government has to focus on righting the current system, now that it has decided to go ahead and implement it. It should concentrate on:
(a) Reconsidering the distribution of only rice and wheat and instead distribute locally grown, traditional and culturally acceptable grains such as ragi, jowar, etc.
(b) Defining a realistic set of poverty indicators and reach out to BPL families currently enrolled in the system to enhance the distribution of grains.
(c) Universalising the existing system to encompass maximum number of people, and allow the self-selection of people in the system.
The most important thing to remember is that food cannot be seen in isolation. Distributing food-grains at subsidised rates does not ensure food security – it only ensures calorie security.