CHENNAI: For years, behind the lush green tea plantations of Assam’s Barak Valley, diseases and deaths were unwelcome visitors. People, mostly daily wage labourers, had to travel approximately 350 km to Guwahati for basic treatment. It was their grim reality of inaccessibility to medical care. In 2007, however, they saw a ray of hope. A man with a mission — Dr Ravi Kannan, an oncologist — moved from Chennai to Silchar to save their lives. Thirteen years later, he is one of their own. No wonder then that the entire town and Cachar Cancer Hospital and Research Centre erupted in cries of joy on January 25 when Dr Kannan was declared as one of the Padma Shri recipients for 2020.
On the same day, several kilometres down south, in his hometown Chennai, his seniors, juniors and classmates from Kendriya Vidyalaya in Tambaram, could not be more proud. Their friend was selected for the nation’s fourth-highest civilian award. “I am touched by people’s reactions. I feel it is not just my achievement. It is for my whole team and all those people who helped in small ways,” he tells CE on a phone call.
Chennai to Silchar
An alumnus of KV Tambaram, Dr Kannan, who rendered his services at the Cancer Institute in Chennai till 2006, was inspired by his mother to become a doctor. “She would always tell me that she wanted to see me as a doctor, and that was the only goal I had,” he shares. With a degree in MBBS from Kilpauk Medical College, MS from Maulana Azad Medical College, New Delhi, and a specialty in oncology from Cancer Institute, Dr Kannan believes he was fortunate to have good teachers to guide him through his formative years. Why Silchar? In 2006, the doctor visited the valley for the first time for a consultation on the request of a colleague. “The then director of Cachar Cancer Hospital and Research Centre asked if I’d like to shift here permanently to provide cancer care. My wife, Seethalakshmi, and I were hesitant. At that point, the northeast meant floods and bomb blasts. But we decided to consider it in 2007. My wife mingled with the community and told me that there was a lot of need for proper medical care. After discussing with our parents, we moved. We did not have a roadmap of what needs to be done. We slowly developed a system,” he says.
Doctor of the masses
Over the years, both Barak Valley and the hospital have grown in spirit, manpower and better healthcare. “When I started here, we had 23 staff members and now we have 350. We were seeing about 400 to 500 cancer patients. At least 95 per cent of them used to have cancer in advanced stages. But now, that’s reduced to 70 per cent. There is a change…but an extremely slow one,” he shares, adding that more than 20,000 people come for a follow-up. True to the nobility of his profession, Dr Kannan is not interested in keeping a count of the number of patients whom he has treated. “But it is definitely not 70,000 as portrayed by the media,” clarifies the 55-year-old.
At the hospital, patients have to pay a registration fee of `500 and they get treatment for their lifetime. The fee is charged to ensure that they come for a follow-up. The patients, mostly from the valley, are provided accommodation and food. Since most of the patients are daily wage labourers, family members and caregivers who accompany them are given jobs at the hospital. Devising new ways like these, Dr Kannan and his team ensure that families bring their ailing members for treatment.
But winds of change often come with a fair bit of turbulence. “The problem here is three-fold and they are interlinked. Poor patients have no money for treatment and are afraid to go to the hospital. To treat them, you need quality care, including good equipment and human resource. Infrastructure is expensive and so are drugs and chemotherapy. We are still fire-fighting. We had to train doctors and nurses in-house. We adopted conventional and non-conventional methods to create awareness about the disease. Our aim was to become a one-stop treatment centre of this region,” he explains. Just like the determined spider from story of Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland, Dr Kannan too persevered and leaped against all odds.
Vision for future
The Padma Shri has not distracted Dr Kannan from his vision and mission. Calm and focussed, he continues to attend to his patients with the same care and concern. “Healthcare industry should ensure that everybody gets the treatment they should get, and not base it on socio-economic background. A person should not suffer from a disease that could have been prevented. No one should die of agony, left on streets with no money,” he says.
This reflects in the work being done at the Cachar Hospital. “When we treat the rich and the poor at the same place, we compromise on medical care. We try to make money off of them to treat the poor. We don’t want that to happen here. We prioritise those who are very sick or are young kids,” he explains. Lauding the Central and state governments’ initiatives towards rural healthcare, Dr Kannan says that privatisation of hospitals does not help the common man. “Healthcare should should be solely driven by the government.
Private hospitals have good resources but they are equally expensive. If Science cannot help the common man, then it is a waste. The day this changes, the sector will be remarkable. The government can make it happen through political will and vision,” he says. Fulfilling his mother’s dreams, Dr Kannan has been a messiah for Barak Valley. She must be proud. “She must be…I have never asked her,” he says.