New lease of life for leprosy patients
By Lalita Panicker, 1993
Were it not for the large sign over the gate, the Sivananda Rehabilitation Home for Destitute Leprosy Patients in Hyderabad could be mistaken for a modest holiday resort. There is nothing about the complex with its tree-shaded driveway, low-roofed whitewashed buildings, immaculately laid out gardens cheerful inmates and doctors that is remotely suggestive of the dread and revulsion that leprous so often arouses in people.
One of the unique features of the home, which was established in 1958, is that the patients, once cured are rehabilitated or taught a particular skill. “Nobody is allowed to sit idle if they can work”, says the unassuming Dr. Hrishikesh, the administrator of the home. A former public health director in Andhra Pradesh, Dr. Hrishikesh gave up lucrative offers from the WHO to devote himself to the running of the leprosy hospital. He efficiently handles with the help of his team of about seven doctors and 16 nurses the awesome task of caring for 200 in-patients, 450 patients undergoing treatments, 200 in various stages of rehabilitation and another 250 rehabilitated patients who work in the home.
Impossible Feat: In fact, so impressed was the then chief minister of Andhra Pradesh with the home that in 1976, he sought to transfer about 1,000 patients from the municipal corporations leprosy home to the Sivananda Home. While the government provided the additional expenditure needed for this the home struggled and ultimately succeeded in the seemingly impossible feat of caring for so many patients. By 1978 the government asked the home to take up the urban leprosy control programme in Hyderabad covering a population of six lakhs. Led by Dr. Hrishikesh, the home initiated house-to-house surveys utilizing the services of volunteer field workers, half of whom were women. The success of this programme is evident from the fact that from 10 leprosy cases per 1,000 population in 1979, it has fallen today to 1.1 cases in every 1,000. This is no mean achievement in a state, which as among the highest number of leprosy cases in the country.
“We have inculcated an awareness of the disease that it is nothing to be frightened of”, says Dr. Anant Reddy, one of the home leprologists. As a result of the home’s efforts, the incidence of leprosy among children has fallen from 4.5 per 1,000 to 1.5 per 1,000 in the same period. The fact that awareness has played an important role is clear from the views of patients and their families. P. Shahida, 20, has been undergoing treatment at the home for the last six months. Her father, a farmer, accompanies her on her visits to the clinic. “We are not frightened by her condition, she lives and eats with us. I even hope I will be able to get her married when she’s cured”, says Noorullak, Shahida’s father.
“It is not so much the disease but the deformities it causes that evoke fear in people”, says Dr. Reddy. Often the disease can be cured but the deformities remain. The Sivananda Home, however, has undertaken a massive scheme for the surgical rehabilitation of those with deformities. Under the guidance of Dr. August Beine from Germany, the home has carried out thousands of reconstructive surgery procedures. Dr. Beine has been working in the home for several years now. The remarkable transformation in patients with deformities both in terms of confidence and appearance after surgery is testimony to Dr. Beine’s genius.
Radha, 18, a shy pretty girl proudly shows off her operated hand, flexing slim fingers which had previously been twisted and claw-like. The women’s ward where Radha is recovering is spotlessly clean, bright and airy. The women are obviously well-cared for- they are dressed in attractive gowns, wear colorful bindis and bangles, and even sport intricate patterns of henna on their hands.
Women, like Bhagyamma, 48, came to the clinic too late to save her hands, feet and eye muscles. Since she has no one to look after her, she will stay at the home for the rest of her life.
SUPERB WORKSHOPS: The home runs a number of workshops where former patients are trained to become electricians, plumbers, masons, cobblers, weavers, gardeners, tailors and mechanics. It also has a superb technical workshop where patients manufacture hospital equipment like trolleys, wash basins, cots, window grills, and so on. A lot of the home’s products like bed sheets, candles, bags, and technical equipment are sold outside through the bulk is used in the hospital itself. Once patients are ready to leave, the home gives them interest free loans to set up business. “I was amazed to see that they pay loans well before the stipulated time, “ says Dr. Hrishikesh.
Prakash Rao, a former patient, runs the home’s school. Standing amidst an excited bunch of giggling children, many of them leprosy patients, he says he will live and work here for the rest of his life. Rao was ostracized by his colleagues in the State Secretariat when they learned of his affliction. Looking at him busily herding his pupils into class, it is hard to believe that he attempted suicide thrice before deciding to stay in the home and dedicating himself to the education of child leprosy victims.
The expenses of the home and salaries of its staff are paid by the German Leprosy Relief Association with the rest coming from the state government. The staff are insured, paid gratuities, covered by provident fund and enjoy handsome medical benefits, something that a charitable institution like the Sivananda Home is not bound to give.
MOVING SPIRIT: If the home is today a model for other such clinics and attracts patients from as far as Gulbarga and Raichur, the credit for its success must largely go to its founder and moving spirit, Ms. Kumidini Devi, the daughter of a Raha in Hyderabad and the daughter-in-law of the Raja of Wanaparthy. She is a former MLA and mayor of Hyderabad. The 52 acres of land on which the home was set up, was donated by her.
Sprightly and energetic at 82, it would be no exaggeration to say that she is the quintessential social worker. The home is but one of her many charitable concerns. She runs among other things, a number of homes for destitute girls. Her homes have had three generations of women pass through them. Perhaps little is known about this remarkable woman outside Andhra Pradesh because of her genuine distaste for publicity. Rather she prefers to concentrate on the institutions she has founded. “I am so happy, everything has gone so beyond my expectations that it almosts frightens me”, she says.
She credits the astonishing range of social work she has done to the inspiration of Swami Sivananda who started his working life as a doctor and who left in search of truth and peace. Characteristically, she underplays her role in the home. “It makes no difference if I am there or not, anyone can run my institution now,” she says. But so thousands of patients who have passed through the portals of her home her presence makes all the difference. For them, she symbolizes the spirit of the institution which has given them a new lease of life.