Dr George Mathew: The Keralite doctor treating tribals in Jharkhand

Dr George Mathew, former principal of the Christian Medical College, Vellore, talks about his experiences in Biru, a tribal village of Jharkhand.
Dr George Mathew
Dr George Mathew

KOCHI: When the 45-year-old tribal, Majhi, was brought to the Shanti Bhavan Medical Center in Biru, Jharkhand, blood was spurting out from a gash in the neck. The nurses rushed to call Dr George Mathew, the general physician and gastrointestinal surgeon. When the doctor came, he was shocked. He pressed hard against the blood vessels to stop the flow, even as Majhi was wheeled into the operation theatre on a gurney. 

“The gash had gone through his ear,” says Dr Mathew. “His nerves and muscles were cut. I worked through the night and managed to repair it. But I told the family Majhi may not be able to speak or hear again.” 

Majhi was having a drink with his friend. Then a misunderstanding arose and the friend slashed him with an axe. They carry axes because they cut wood often. Majhi recovered and then went home. 

Six months later, there was a visitor in the outpatient department. He was accompanied by his 20-year-old daughter. “He was smiling, but I could not recognise him,” says Mathew. “He pointed to his face and I could see a scar. And then I remembered.”  

Majhi had recovered well and could speak properly but could only hear a little. And he was back to farming. Majhi presented a paper packet to Mathew, which contained bananas, and said, “This is my first crop. Thanks to you, I am alive.”

The daughter beamed. And Mathew felt a deep sense of happiness and satisfaction. 

Mathew has been in Biru for the past one-and-a-half years. The former principal of the Christian Medical College (CMC), Vellore, he retired in 2011 and spent the next few years in Jakarta, Indonesia, helping to develop a newly-begun medical college and to start a teaching hospital. But when his friend, Arwin Sushil, the chief administrative officer of the Center invited him to have a look, Mathew did so.

“I saw that there was a need for senior doctors,” says Mathew, who has a doctorate in surgery from the Royal Adelaide Hospital, University of Adelaide. “So I decided to stay.” 

Asked about the health issues of the people, Mathew says that because of their poor living standards, many suffer from tuberculosis, malaria, diarrhoea and dehydration. “Owing to their illiteracy and ignorance, they come to the hospital only when the disease is at an advanced stage,” says Mathew. “For some, we can do something. But for the others, it is too late. We can only give a palliative.” 

Another problem is that because there are good roads, accidents have become very common. “High speed combined with alcohol is a dangerous combination,” says Mathew. “We get accident victims every day. Many of them come with severe head injuries because they don’t wear helmets. The mortality rate is 25 per cent, which is very high.” 

Interestingly, the patients are getting subsidised treatment. “There is a government health insurance,” says Mathew. “So, we don’t charge the patient but the government reimburses us if the people are below the poverty line.”

In 2017-18, the partially-free treatment was to the tune of Rs 1.9 crore. The Shanti Bhavan Center has 50 beds and sophisticated equipment. It has two Operating Theatres and X-Ray facilities. It plays an important role in the area because the nearest hospital is at Rourkela, 100 km away.  

Backward and poor

Biru is one of the most backward regions in Jharkhand. The majority of the people are tribals. And their primary occupation is farming. But they use the basic equipment of ox and plough. “Since they depend on the rain, they grow only one crop annually, mainly rice and vegetables like brinjals, ladies finger, tomatoes, chillies, and groundnuts,” says Mathew. “If the monsoon fails, their crops also fail.” 

They also collect forest produce like honey, wood and the mahua flower. “This flower is destroying the community because they make alcohol by fermenting it,” says Mathew. “Alcoholism is rampant. Both men, women and sometimes children drink it.” 

Interestingly, the terrain is very much like Kerala. It is full of forests with clearings in between and there are small hamlets. Asked to compare a village in Kerala with that in Biru, Mathew says, “It is like comparing the USA and Africa. The availability of health-care facilities is very low in Jharkhand as compared to Kerala. It is a world apart. The South of India is far ahead as compared to the North.”

Surprisingly, the locals have heard of Kerala because some of them had gone to work as labourers, because of the high daily wages. “They said they were treated well and felt happy,” says Mathew. Asked how long he would stay, the 69-year-old says, “As long as my health permits, and my family is okay with it.” 

The family includes his wife Alice, a gynaecologist, who is on a temporary assignment in Brunei, till December, while his son Sidharth, 35, is a Bengaluru-based lawyer. Another son, Anirudh, 32, is a neuropsychologist at CMC, Vellore.  

In conclusion, Mathew says, “This stint has provided me with a lot of happiness. I was able to provide medical care in an area where there is nothing. Also, I have experienced the joy of saving people who would have died otherwise.”

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The New Indian Express