BENGALURU: Whenever there’s a family function or social do that falls on the first and third Sunday of every month, Phanindranath V and his wife Smriti politely decline. But relatives and friends don’t get offended. For everyone knows nothing will stop this couple, both homeopathic doctors, from their mission.
Their mission? Every first Saturday evening of the month, the duo take an overnight bus or train from Bengaluru to Domgera, a village 440km away, in Haliyal in North Karnataka. They reach the next morning, have a quick breakfast at a villager’s house and see patients at a makeshift clinic operating out of an anganwadi school.
After lunch, they borrow a bike, ride to another village Neelavani, 15km away. There they attend to patients and ride back to Domgera by evening and head back to Bengaluru by bus. It’s a pattern they follow on the third Sunday but the destination is different: this time it’s Hireshetta in Karwar, 520 km from Bengaluru.
The couple, who are in their 30s, see an average of 250-300 patients a month at the free camps. it’s a routine they’ve never missed since 2014, save for one Sunday when Smriti's father passed away.
The seeds of this outreach were sown when Phanindranath did his PG at ML Dhawle Homeopathy College in Palghar, Maharashtra, where students would be sent to tribal villages to treat people. When he came to Bengaluru, he continued the work by treating slumdwellers in Kaggalipura. Later he began to treat kids with neurological disorders at a centre for special children.
But Phanindranath felt a vacuum. “It struck me that the city has a battery of professionals to deal with such children. I wondered who would be treating children with cerebral palsy and other disabilities in villages. I thought if I could help at least one rural child, it would be worthwhile.”
It didn’t take long before they were guided to Domgera village, the turning point in their lives. Apart from regular patients, the couple has seen about 80 children with neurological problems. “It’s a big challenge: first, to get them to have medicines, and then to come for follow-ups. Some expect a big change and we have to explain it doesn’t work that way,” says Smriti.
In many cases children are looked after by grandparents as parents are migrant labourers. Often the only request from grandparents is to make the child able to at least answer nature’s call. Over the past few years, however, there have been heartening moments for the couple. “A child who had come crawling to our clinic is now able to walk. Cases of developmental delay have been treated and there have been marked improvements in others.”
But the children need more than just medical help, says Phanindranath. “They need special educators, activities to keep them engaged and some basic learning.” The couple says experts in the city give them a patient hearing but hesitate to make a commitment. They wish more doctors chipped in as neurological cases in rural areas are often due to mismanaged deliveries or inability to identify genetic defects. “We feel happy to have offered medical help where none exists,” they say.
It was not easy initially for the doctors to give up on two Sundays, especially with two young children at home. But with the support of their mothers who look after the kids in their absence, they’ve made it this far. It’s also helped that they partnered with the Satya Sai Seva organisation, run by Shivaraj Goni and a team of volunteers, which offered logistical support, like setting up the clinic, getting patients from 75 villages and screening them to optimize consultation time.
“We got hold of the most educated girl in the village and taught her to arrange, label and dispense the medicines. Similarly, girls from other villages too were trained this way,” says Phanindranath.
But don’t the doctors find the grind strenuous? Not at all, says Smriti, “I’d say we feel very happy to go to these villages and very sad to return.”