RNI No. 72289/99 Registered No. DL(N)-06/236/2009-11   

APRIL 16 - 30, 2010

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 - MPK Kutty

‘Yes, India is coping with its increasing population burden. Flyovers, broad roads, varieties of luxury cars speeding through highways , metro rail , low floor buses, thousands taking to air travel through numerous airlines…The technological advances in the electronic gadgets is beyond comprehension. There are equipment, be it in medical field, factories or kitchen which are available in few European countries or other advanced nations!'. Dr Neela Naha is astonished to note the differences over the past decade and more she had spent in Zimbabwe, an African nation.

Dr Neela works for the St Albert Mission Hospital in Harare, capital of Zimbabwe. The women doctors there struggle to provide care to the sick and the injured who come to the hospital and to the HIV-affected pregnant women. They have a home based care programme; they even train desperately needed nurses and raise crops to feed patients.

Zimbabwe with its economic crisis, political conflicts and health hazards present quite a different picture. The economic decline is fuelling food shortages. The scourge of AIDS is in danger of being overlooked in the face of more survival concerns. Between 2002 and 2006, the population of Zimbabwe is estimated to have decreased by four million people. The average life expectancy for women particularly is 34the lowest anywhere in the world. Zimbabwe has also the higher number of orphans in proportion to its population than any other country in the world according to UNICEF.

Inflation rates sometimes climb above 2,000 percent (the highest in the world). They face chronic shortages of fuel, electricity and water. The Zimbabwe government lacks hard currency, so even basic supplies and equipment are in short supply. Many medical specialists have fled the country. AIDS had also taken a toll of health service personnel.

How Nagpur- born Dr Neela Naha, originally hailing from a Bengali family of former Dacca happened to reach one of the worst AIDS-infested region of Africa is an interesting story.

It was in London, while doing her MRCOG, Naha happened to meet an old classmate, Esme D'Souza, and struck a friendship. They had studied together at St Francis Xaviour's College in Nagpur. Along with Esme she used to attend church though she attached little importance to such visits.

After completing her MRCOG she took up a job in a Goa hospital. The salary was quite good but there wasn't much work to do. It was again her fellowship and participation in the prayer group organized by Esme D'Souza that impacted her life in Goa. 'What impressed me about them was their generosity, their forgiving nature and their faithfulness to short the way they lived,” Naha recalls. She felt she too had a calling to serve suffering humanity in a meaningful way and not merely content with a career however promising.

Dissatisfied she came over to Delhi and met her old friend, Dr Sharda Jain. She readily introduced her to Dr Lucy Oommen, the then medical superintendent of the St Stephens Hospital, a missionary institution.

Dr Oommen was a renowned gynaecologist of Delhi whom the government had honoured with a Padma Shri. She was quite impressed with the commitment and dedication of Dr Naha and her compassionate care of the patients.

She took particular care of the poor and indigent patients and felt for them. Some of them she helped with her own money. She became aware of the plight of the extremely poor ones who can not afford hospitalization and wanted to serve the least of society…

'In that you have done it unto the least of these My brethren, you have done it unto Me!' these words of Jesus directed her thinking to the outside world, beyond the comfortable confines of the St Stephens. When she heard that Mother Teresa was going to open an orphanage in Nagpur, she made haste to meet her and offered to work for her. But then the Mother felt that an orphanage did not offer the scope for full exercise of her talents. The doctor knelt down before the Mother and sent her away with her blessing.

Her attention was subsequently drawn to the International Medical Association headquartered in Rome which undertook to serve the poorest of the poor in the most backward regions of the world. Joining the association as a member she traveled far and wide acquainting herself with health problems in various regions. After nearly three years, she was sent to Zimbabwe which was experiencing an acute shortage of doctors.

When she came over to Delhi on a short holiday in 2008, her friends were shocked to note she has become much emaciated, a shadow of her former self. They persuaded her not to risk her health, but a determined lady that she is , any effort to deflect her from her chosen path would be in vain.

She is currently in Delhi to receive the Dr Lucy Oommen award for 2010. The award is presented once in two years to the best gynaecologist who had contributed significantly to mother and child health. Dr Oommen in whose name the award was instituted had served the St Stephens hospital for nearly 42 years and had been acclaimed for her compassionate service to the sick and the poor.

Her life story is an illustration of how God chooses human instruments to carry out His purposes and designs them to serve in this needy world.

Her life had been a heroic adventure, since the time her father, a chemical engineer with a firm, died in a tragic accident one day leaving the family of six in dire straits. Neela was studying in class X around that time. Though she was good at studiesshe had secured the second rank in the 10th examination in the state-- she was compelled to seek employment as typist in a small shop, with due recommendation. With what little she could earn, she supported the education of other siblings including two brothers.

Her hardships did not stifle her ambition to be a doctor. After around four years of labour in the shop, she wrote the entrance examination to the medical profession and secured eighth rank in the all-India test. According to Dr Sharda Jain, an eminent gynaecologist of Delhi, and her friend and colleague in the Lady Hardinge Medical College, Neela landed at the institution with a mere Rs 300 in hand.

After passing the MBBS examination creditably, she secured admission to the MD course in medicine at the Postgraduate Institute in Chandigarh . Unfortunately she had to interrupt her studies and return to Nagpur where her mother fell seriously ill with a kidney problem. For about four to five years she worked in a local clinic under a reputed gynaecologist, Dr (Mrs) Tamaskar.

Once more she came to the aid of the family securing its economic foundations with the money she earned.

However, Dr Neela looked forward to fulfill her ambition of reaching greater heights in her profession. Off she went to London to continue her studies for MRCOG. She was also able to secure a scholarship to pursue her studies in London.

Though anyone with her background of struggles with economic hardships would have preferred to look for lucrative positions in corporate hospitals, Dr Neela readily responded to Dr Lucy Oommen's call to serve at St Stephen's Hospital. Here her dedication to service of the poor found expression; very often she had helped poor patients with money on the quiet-- believing what the right hand does should not be known to the left hand.

The only luxury she seemed to enjoy while she served the mission hospital was her trips to Goa to meet friends, presumably nuns, part of a charismatic group. She would often be found engrossed in literature published by the group. Several of her patients testify that she would advise them to look to the Lord of all healing for their recovery even as she strove to do her best to reduce their pain and anxiety.

Yusuf , a devout but illiterate Muslim, who lives and works in the vicinity of the hospital, still narrates with immense gratitude and a glint in his eyes, his own experience with the doctor. He was without issue, though married for more than five years. After completing all tests, the doctor called him aside and said: “Everything is okay. Now you need one more thing.”

Curiosity and anxiety flooded his mind as he listened further: “Go to a quiet place and cry out to God! Let tears flow!! Let your tears flow!!!” Fifteen days later, a urine test confirmed his wife was pregnant. “God has sent you a gift. He has made you a father. Now go and thank God for what He has done!!” the doctor told him.

It was unfortunate that Dr Neela went abroad before his eldest son was born, Yusuf recalls. “There was nothing extraordinary about her appearance. .but God was with her. I have seen her busying herself in serving the patients day and night. She was very gentle and kind to patients under her care!” Yusuf was not flattering when he added that the short statured lady with disheveled hair and always carelessly attired was no less than a Mother Teresa..

“No less than a Mother Teresa!”-- It is an illiterate Muslim testifying to me and his words are as trustworthy and as backed by sound common sense as that of any scholar. People who know him will vouchsafe for me. Numerous are the others whom she had helped in one way or the other, but then more of her acts of charity were done in secret.

This frail lady with her poor health and weakness reminds one of the spirit of sacrifice reflected in the lives of Mother Teresa, St Francis of Assisi and Fr Damien. Someone once asked Francis of Assisi how he was able to accomplish so much. He replied, “This may be why: The Lord looked down from heaven and said, 'where can find the weakest, littlest man on earth?' Then He saw me and said , 'I've found him. I will work through him, and he won't be proud of it. He'll see that I am only using him because of his insignificance.” (1720 words)

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