Jan 03 2015 : The Times of India (Kolkata)
PEOPLE, PASSIONS – `Our hospital’, their hope

A septuagenarian doctor has a dream: providing basic healthcare facilities in one of Bengal’s most backward regions.
Arup Chatterjee meets the man himself and details his unique model -of training unregistered medical practitioners
The dirt road that branches out from the Bankura-Purulia highway at Bhagabanpur narrows into a serpentine trail just wide enough for a bullock cart. Lined by thicket for much of the way, it sneaks through a couple of villages before emerging on a treacherous stretch that ends at an inspiring story whose first lines were written eight years ago.
Some 25km from Bankura town, on what used to be a rocky wasteland, Amader Haspatal (Our Hospital) is an oasis of hope amidst the despair of one of the most backward regions of the state. Having shunned cushy retired lives to deliver healthcare in that wilderness near Phulberia village, Dr Pijush Sarkar and his wife Krishna have had the hospital grow to encompass a great deal more.

The modest single-storey building where the 70-year-old, a former director of the School of Tropical Medicine in Kolkata, has been treating patients has been supplemented by a 12-bed indoor wing, a classroom and hostels -all housed in a couple of brand new buildings that came up with government grants. Wells have been dug and more land brought under cultivation as the hospital with a under cultivation as the hospital with a difference strives for self-sufficiency.

As patient after patient arrive, the relevance of Amader Haspatal becomes all too obvious in the bleak backdrop of what passes as rural healthcare.

Ajit Hasda has brought his ailing wife Srimati on the back seat of his bicycle from Manbazar, some 60km away .Krishnapada Murmu has cycled 35km with his wife and two-year-old son. Rajen Kisku arrives after a bumpy ride in an autorickshaw. Being treated for tuberculosis under a government programme, the wiry farmer has come to treat its side effects. Laksmi Tudu has travelled all the way from Onda after a government hospital and several private practitioners failed to bring relief from pain in her arms. “I heard the old doctor cures everything,“ she says in hope.

Treatment fees of Rs 20, nominal charges for X-ray and pathological tests, a growing reputation of delivering healthcare with a humane touch have had patients flock to the facility despite the distances and pathetic road conditions. The hospital, Sarkar says, is but a secondary objective. He explains that Amader Haspatal is being developed as a healthcare model under the Foundation for Health Action, a trust working in the areas of healthcare for the poor and promoting the rational use of drugs.

“The system is geared to serve big hospitals in cities and semi-urban areas. Doctors don’t like going to villages and the government is not bothered about taking healthcare there. Our aim is to produce health workers who can take care of primary needs in vil lages,“ says the doctor, unveiling plans to convert a hazard into help.

“Quackery is dangerous but also a social necessity ,“ he declares. “There is no one else to turn to in a village, but quacks end up doing immense damage. We want to intervene here and make quacks with a difference,“ he adds, shortly before conducting a class for the first batch of `Village Medical Workers’. Explaining that quacks emerge from places like pharmacies, hospitals and nursing homes, Sarkar points out that they go only by symptoms, blindly trying to mimic doctors. “Overmedication, drug resistance… quacks can wreck a body .These courses will produce village practitioners, trained pharmacists and nurses,“ says the doctor, who had been a medical teacher for most of his career.

The 30-odd students, who had spent the morning observing him treat patients, are told that a headache could be a symptom for anything from glaucoma to spondylosis. They are led through the dos-and-don’ts for convulsions, complete with insight into the phenomenon and its preliminary medication. Sarkar repeatedly reminds them of the line they must never cross, when the help of a qualified doctor will become paramount. “They will be able to call me for consultation, and must be back here for upgrade,“ says the doctor, who reminds that the hospital will serve as a “good training ground“. “Batches of quacks, mostly from the Rural Medical Practitioners’ Association, come for reorientation.“

Sarkar’s wife Krishna, a former director of nursing services, also contributes to the training programme even as she oversees the functioning of facilities on the 6.5-acre compound. “We grow vegetables that not just take care of our requirements, but are also sold,“ says the 66-year-old as she does a round of the expanding orchard. “This is an experiment by the agricultural university ,“ she adds, pointing to rows of grapevine.Flowering plants lend the compound a bright look.“Hospitals need not be grim, dirty places,“ she reminds.

Sarkar has the Srihari Gram Panchayat on board but is frustrated by governmental apathy . “The approach road is dangerous and all but inaccessible during monsoons. We have such a facility; can’t the government provide a proper road? It’s just three kilometres from the highways on either side,“ Nothing deters the elderly couple from their mission -not bad roads, nor typically rural symptoms like painfully slow internet connections and power failures that can last as long as 12 hours.

With the two assisting doctors having departed, the 70-year-old is back to doing it alone, even as Amader Haspatal continues to build on the “alternative“ in healthcare.