West of Coimbatore lies the protected forest of Silent Valley. Tourists normally take NH47 via Palakkad to reach this. One can also take the road less travelled: through the Attappady Tribal Reserve. Attappady Reserve (which is an hour away from Silent Valley) is home to about 30000 tribals and another 60000 poor labourers. For decades, development (as we know it) had hardly touched them; many well -intentioned Government schemes had failed because Doctors, Teachers and Professionals shy away from the ‘backward’ areas. A young doctor changed all this.
As a medical student V. Narayanan was deeply inspired by Swami Vivekananda to serve the poor. So when he completed his MD in Trivandrum, he did not start a lucrative private practice. In 2000, he stumbled upon the sleepy town of Agali in the Attappady Reserve and decided start his practice there. He did not jump into dispensing medicines right away— he spent his initial years in studying the developmental needs of the locals and thus got a holistic view of people’s welfare. (To my mind, this was when he transcended from Pediatrician to Patriot!) As if this was not crazy enough, he spent the first 3 years in Agali without any pay for his services— purely a labour of love.
In 2002 he organized a Mobile Medical Unit and trained a few local youth to help him dispense medicines in the territory. Today the Village Health Worker Network has volunteers serving in over 75 villages! By 2004 other service minded people joined him and the Vivekananda Medical Mission Trust was formed; a small 10 bed-hospital was constructed and Dr. Narayanan was appointed Chief Medical Officer. The hospital now treats over 100 patients daily and is considered a major force in battling sickle cell anemia that is widely prevalent here.
The Tribals have no societal restrictions on alcohol, so large numbers are addicts to local brews. So now he established a de-addiction centre. He has volunteers penetrating deep into villages to spread the message of alcohol de-addiction. The other thing that worried the good doctor was the high incidence of mental illness. He tried to enlist the help of the Govt. Mental Hospital Thrissur, but realized that there simply were not enough psychiatrists to handle a problem of this size and geographical complexity. Taking matters into his own hands he trained himself in the Thrissur Mental hospital. Armed with this, he now is able to give basic care for wide range of illnesses from depression to schizophrenia. As far as I know, he is the only pediatrician who treats mental illnesses!
The Vivekananda Mission has spread its wings: now there are Women’s Self-Help Groups and they even run a middle- school that teaches English along with traditional Indian values. Slowly the urban elite have begun to appreciate his work and now funds have begun to flow from Public and Private sector companies. But the Mission has ambitious plans. In the first phase, the hospital is being expanded to 30 beds with an Operation Theatre and Obstetrics Ward. They need public support for this.
We drove down the Ghat Road to visit the hospital, but could not meet the doctor at the appointed time. Reason? The only other (lady) doctor in the hospital was on leave. So Dr. Narayanan was swarmed by patients and just could not extricate himself. When he did, he showed no signs of overload/ stress; he welcomed us warmly.
I asked the doctor about his working hours. One of the Trustees interrupted with “sometimes, 16 hours —we have to persuade him to go home”. How many Sundays does he get to spend with his family? He said he has a pact with his wife that he would spend one Sunday in a month with them. (The doctor lived in the village initially, but had to shift to Coimbatore for the sake of his children). I mumbled my admiration for such a considerate family.
Being a corporate professional, I grilled him as to why he thought we should fund his NGO. Despite his accomplishments and knowledge, he did not show a ‘holier-than-thou’ attitude. He answered my questions patiently and with attention to detail and with statistical evidence. Even though he operated from a village, he had researched a number of reports (Census, Govt. studies, WHO white-papers etc) that gave credence to his approach. He had done his home work well and his Powerpoint presentation (I saw it on his laptop– they could not afford a projector) anticipated all my questions. He had ready-made copies of every conceivable documentary proof I could want (Income Tax Act, Societies Act, accreditations, the works). I understood why he was so successful (although I came from a world which understood “success” differently). He worked from the perspective of the other party! Jai Hind !