They dared to dream

The story of Karigiri.

All of us dream. Dreams ‘that wave before the half shut eye,’ then vanish into nothingness, at the first streaks of dawn. But sometimes, dreams persistently recur and turn into reality, enriching the life of the dreamer, and significantly altering the lives of those around him.

“SLRTC” is not some ingenious surface-to-air missile. The Schieffelin Leprosy and Training Centre at Karigiri, is the dream child of a group of doctors who dared to dream. Like the ‘Wise men of Hindustan ,’ they probably had individual conceptions of that vision, perhaps not always compatible. But it helped that they concurred without reservations, on the choice of the architect – Jesus, the friend of lepers!

In the Fifties, Leprosy was still a dreaded disease, more so because of the visible deformities of face and extremities, of skin lesions, sores or blindness that made normal people shun them. Hobbling along the streets in makeshift shoes and bandaged toes, desperately trying to conceal their disfigured faces under tattered cowls, and rattling their tin cans in the hope that someone would throw them a coin, it was a tragic picture of hopelessness, loss of dignity and rejection. And the tragedy was doubly depressing because most of the deformities were preventable. Loss of sensation due to damaged nerves made them immune to heat, cold, or pain. Hence they injured themselves due to ignorance, and neglected their anaesthetic limbs.

There was also the erroneous belief that Leprosy was a curse from God brought on through some unpardonable sin.

SLRTC was born in 1955, not merely to treat patients with Leprosy and rehabilitate them, but to study the disease and find answers to all the complex medico-social problems generated as a result of the disease. It began as a department of the Christian Medical College and Hospital, Vellore , but needed its own identity for proper growth and development. The dreamers had visions of not just serving but educating, not merely rehabilitating but carrying out extensive and ambitious field activities to eradicate Leprosy in the surrounding areas.

Dr. Robert Cochrane one of the pioneers, envisaged individual personal care for each patient, with proper documentation, to serve as a basis for research. Eminent surgeons like Paul Brand, dedicated the best years of their life, to surgically correcting deformities, and also train young doctors in the management of complications of Leprosy. Their faith permeated their work, and brought hope to countless men and women floundering in the terrifying darkness of man’s callousness. As Von Knebel said, “Hope awakens courage. He who can implant courage in the human soul, is the best physician.”

Because Leprosy was such a dreaded disease, the Government could only be persuaded to spare a brown and arid stretch of wasteland overgrown with thorn and thistle. It was 13 kms away from the centre of Vellore town and 3 kms off the main road, so that these outcastes could be isolated in a lazaretto , away from the public eye.

Forty five years down the line, as we turn into the gates of SLRTC, we are instantly transported into a tranquil, lush green kingdom, a chiaroscuro of light and shade, with hospital buildings nestling here and there among the dense foliage. Bird song and bird chatter, blue jays and white breasted kingfishers, noisy parakeets and stealthy magpies dart back and forth among the trees, making it an Eden of sorts. What the Government didn’t realise was that under the dirty brown barrenness, there was a wealthy water table waiting to be tapped. Says Dr. Ernest Fritchie, “Ecological conservation is not an intense pursuit of activity, but a quiet passive policy of conservation and prevention of destruction.”

Fines were instituted for any one who killed a bird or a snake. Today, there are more than sixty varieties of birds in this evergreen paradise, and the beneficiaries are none other than those whom the world shunned. This may be an isolated haven, but not one of them feels the loneliness of abandonment. 386 trained staff – doctors, nurses, paramedics, helpers- care for the patients.

It is an excellent centre where both medical and surgical facilities are available. Reconstructive surgery is performed to make deformed extremities functional. Orthopaedic and Ocular surgeons take care of complications in their respective specialities. Multidrug therapy addresses the disease, but the holistic approach to management goes a long way in erasing the social and psychological scars of this crippling disease.

Rehabilitaion must automatically follow. Its purpose is to reestablish self esteem and economic self sufficiency. Weaving and Block printing are ideal occupations for sensitive hands. Training in various crafts is provided at the Centre. Looms are given to weavers, and raw material provided. From the broom grown on the premises, beautiful table mats are made. Towels, bedspreads, bags and an assortment of goods are marketed through Arts and Crafts centres in India and abroad. This brings them a decent wage, and boosts their self worth and confidence.

With excellent collaboration between different departments like Medical Records, Biostatistics, Pathology, and Data Bank, SLRTC has become one of the premier Research institutions in the study of Leprosy. Dr. C.K.Job Emeritus Scientist still offers his services to the institution. In fact, it was he who dispelled our mistaken notion that Leprosy had almost been eradicated.

“Take a look,” he said, pointing to a recent slide from a nerve. Sure enough, it was teeming with Mycobacterium Leprae.

In the last four years, 50 scientific papers have been published from here, and thirty new projects have been undertaken. SLRTC is also a training centre for medical and paramedical personnel.

International support for Voluntary organizations involved in Leprosy work is drying up. Not because leprosy has been eradicated, but because the emphasis now is wholly on HIV/AIDS. But the disease is very much alive. Of the 3 million cases globally, 75% are in India alone. According to statistics of SLRTC, there were 778 new patients in 1999. There can be no reason for complacency, as even the severe forms of the disease have not declined.

After the Government started its Rural Leprosy Services in 1968, SLRTC has not been actively involved in surveillance as before. Even so, its active Community health services through camps for health education, detection and treatment continue uninterrupted. It has even facilitated those with disabilities to forms their own community based rehabilitation programmes. In Gudiyatham taluk which was assigned to the Centre, the prevalence has been brought down from 26/1000 to an incredible 1/1000.

The present Director Dr.P.S.S.Sundar Rao, is a dynamic leader and an eminent statistician. He says that “behind every statistic is a human being, created in the image of God, and our aim has been to provide quality care to all those who come to Karigiri seeking help.”

The work done at Karigiri is awesome and inspiring. It is a place worth visiting. The closest railway station is Katpadi. The Guest house has comfortable rooms, with a dining room that provides quality food. There are rooms for meetings and workshops, or for those who want to get away for a break from the ‘madding crowds.’

As we left Karigiri, I was reminded of what Albert Schweitzer once said.

“Whatever you have received more than others in health, in ability, in success, in a pleasant childhood, in harmonious conditions of home life, all this you must not take to yourself as a matter of course. You must pay a price for it. You must render an unusually great sacrifice of your life for another life.”

Father Damien did it when he volunteered to serve lepers on the island of Moloki , in 1873. There was no known cure then, and he died a leper. Graham Staines chose poverty instead of a lucrative practice, so that he could minister to lepers. No one felt his loss more than his patients.

Not all of us are called to work among such people. The least we can do is to applaud and support their efforts through our contributions in kind, for “it is in giving that we receive.”


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