Instead of calling it a day on a distinguished career as a medical practitioner, Dr. Sr. Aquinas Edassery, 65, is traversing through remote forests in Thuamul Rampur Block in the district of Kalahandi, to bring healthcare to the backward region of Odisha.
‘It was not an easy decision to make, to move to a remote corner of the country that lacks basic facilities, to gain the trust of the tribal people and work with them, and not knowing the local language. People who get job transfers here consider it to be a punishment transfer,’ she told The Better India.
Due to lack of medical development, the village reports an egregious number of teenagers dying during childbirth along with very high child mortality rates.
Dr. Aquinas has always been a staunch supporter of making healthcare available to those with the greatest need for it. During her time at St. Johns Hospital in Bangalore, she made painstaking efforts to reach out to the people of Kollegal, in rural Karnataka. With the help of her colleagues, she educated the community on the importance of primary health care. As a direct result of her work, child mortality rates in Kollegal fell during the time she spent there.
The doctor drew inspiration from her work in Kollegal and decided to use her medical prowess in uplifting those lacking in basic health care.
2014 marked the beginning of the Kalahandi chapter through the inception of her NGO ‘Swasthya Swaraj’. The doctor and her team had a daunting task ahead of them. Kalahandi’s Thuamul Rampur block had an ill-equipped primary health centre with just one doctor and one nurse, so it came as no surprise to the doctor when she found out that the place was teeming with terminal cases of tuberculosis and malaria.
Dr. Aquinas and her two colleagues Sr. Angelina Thomas, a senior lab technician, and Sr. Biji Mery, a senior nurse set up two medical centres in the region equipped to provide high-quality healthcare, 24/7 and a laboratory to conduct tests.
‘But we cannot always sit in the clinic and expect patients to walk over 50 km to come to us. Especially, children and pregnant women cannot travel, so we decided to go to them,’ said Dr. Aquinas.
The tricky terrain, uncharted territory, made no difference to the doctor’s determination to help those in need. Dr. Aquinas and her vivacious team made sure they covered as much ground as they possibly could, come hell or high water.
‘In the monsoon seasons, making inroads into the villages become all the riskier. But we are not here to do half-hearted work. If we had not taken the effort, many children would have died. All difficulties are all forgotten when we are able to save the lives of precious babies and young mothers,’ said the doctor.
The team relies on a network of postmen to give them updates about the health of the villagers. As doctors, they’re always on call, and if any medical case needs urgent attention, jeeps ignite immediately to travel to the isolated pockets.
Dr. Aquinas said, ‘We see 200 patients in a single day. Consultation, lab tests and reports, medical advice – we are literally on our toes to get it all done before it is time for the patients to catch the last buses to the villages,’
Without educating the masses on healthcare, Dr. Aquinas work would be incomplete. Her mission then became raising medical awareness within the community so that the people become ‘Medically Independent.’
Her team began training young tribal women to become primary health care providers in their villages, and now they already know how to diagnose common illnesses, identify high-risk pregnancies early on and alert the medical team.
To build on the progress, to teach villagers how to stay healthy and prevent diseases like malaria and tuberculosis, the team of doctors went on to train 20 young men to be healthcare communicators. The good work of the doctor is changing lives even as I write this. Nearly 14,000 people from 76 villages have become wiser to the importance of healthcare and are taking diligent steps to curb the spreading of preventable diseases with the help of the men and women chosen to be healthcare communicators.
Driven by her work and the response the doctor went on to say: ‘There is a certain kind of an awakening that is taking place in the region. Many people are coming forward to support, people are showing receptiveness and the government is helping too.’
The doctor shows us that age is just a number: ‘No, my age is not what matters. As a doctor, it matters to me that people benefit from my service,’ she says.