Illinois physician devotes herself to tribal children

Indo-Asian News Service, Press Trust Of India

An Indian American doctor has closed down her practice in the US to dedicate time and attention to a pediatrics centre for impoverished children in Gujarat.

The Gujarat-born Roda Patel, who had migrated with her husband to the US in 1963, had a flourishing practice at Northbrook, Illinois.

A chance visit to Kharel, a tribal area in Gujarat where a dedicated doctor couple Ashwin and Harsha Shah had turned an abandoned hospital into a centre for community care, changed her life.

Patel stayed on for nine months, eventually establishing a pediatrics centre at the hospital. She has discontinued her practice in Illinois to devote more time to the Kharel hospital.

“The most pressing problem was of malnutrition in children,” Patel said.

“Malnutrition retards not only their physical growth but their mental and emotional development. In addition, these children are highly susceptible to infectious diseases and the mortality rate is high.”

About 65 percent of the population of Kharel consists of tribals, with most being landless labourers earning just about Rs.25 (about 50 cents) a day.

That is the prescribed minimum wage.

In the initial years, the hospital was plagued by a woeful lack of infrastructure. Power shortage was a chronic problem. Over the years, the facilities provided at the hospital have grown.

It is now a 50-bed hospital with an emergency room, laboratory services, facilities for radiology including sonography, an operating theatre, a labour and delivery room, a neonatal care facility and a phototherapy unit in addition to a staff of consulting physicians and surgeons.

Patel’s regret is that not everyone in dire need is being served.

“We can cater to only 13 percent of the children in the age group of up to five years. From serving 50 patients in the initial years to 4,000 patients now is a progress.

“Currently, we focus more on prevention,” said Patel. “Apart from health education, we have started a mother-child care centre. Much still needs to be done.”

Patel said the rate of maternal and neonatal mortality was very high.

“So we are providing antenatal checks ups. Since over 80 percent of the deliveries occur at home, we have started a training programme called ‘Safe motherhood and newborn care’.”

Initially Patel’s husband, Khushroo, a cardiovascular surgeon, was skeptical of his wife’s attempts.

“I remember telling her ‘You think you will solve India’s problems,'” he said. But now he also is a firm supporter of the project.

Khushroo spent a month in Kharel operating on needy patients, even performing an emergency operation. “Once,” he recalled, “the power failed and we completed an operation using flashlights.”

Both Patel and Khushroo have grown disillusioned with ‘managed care’ in the US, and are in the process of winding down their practice to devote more time to the Kharel hospital.

Their enthusiasm has proved infectious in the family. Their grandchildren donate their entire piggy bank savings to the project. Many of their friends have become supporters and donors.

The McDonalds Foundation donated $25,000 with a commitment to match that donation every year for the next two years. Hiren Patel, owner of the National Republic Bank in Chicago, has also donated generously to the project.

Patel has also formed the Gram Seva Foundation, a charitable organisation in the US, for village care. “Hundred percent of the donations are diverted for the welfare of the children,” she said.

She gets emotional when she recalls the desperate but futile efforts to save a child, brought in too late to the hospital.

“I grew up in Navasari and now realise that I became a doctor to do something in the villages of India. When I first saw the malnutrition and grinding poverty in Kharel, my reaction was ‘this is not acceptable in Gujarat’.”

“The joy one feels in seeing these sad, malnourished, frightened children transform into happy, healthy ones ready to face and dream about tomorrow, is beyond compare,” she says.
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