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Make way for Veeralakshmi, India's first female ambulance driver

India's first female ambulance pilot M Veeralakshmi opens up about taking up the profession during the pandemic, on road woes, and her hidden talents

Published: 01st October 2020 05:41 AM  |   Last Updated: 02nd October 2020 04:48 PM   |  A+A-

Born and raised in Theni, Veeralakshmi came to Chennai along with her husband almost a decade ago

Express News Service

CHENNAI: Hello, I have just been assigned a case. Can I call back when I break for lunch?” asks M Veeralakshmi hurriedly. Feeling guilty about interrupting an ambulance pilot’s busy schedule, I hang up and wait for her to call back.

Hours later, I answer her call only to know that “Today was hectic, I couldn’t catch a break. Let’s talk tomorrow.” This is but a usual day for Veeralakshmi — India’s first female ambulance pilot. Born and raised in Theni, Veeralakshmi came to Chennai along with her husband almost a decade ago. “My husband was already working as a driver here. I used to go with him sometimes, and by observing him, I learned all about the profession and even the mechanics of it,” says the 30-year-old.

Photos: Ashwin Prasath

Driving her dreams
It was only four years ago when Veeralakshmi approached ANEW, a women’s welfare association in Anna Nagar, for work. “They were providing vocational training for women and helping them get jobs. I enrolled myself into their driving course. Since I had the experience of watching my husband drive, I was confident that I could do this,” she says.

Soon, at the Professional Driver Training Academy in Red Hills, she was wowing the driving instructors with her driving skills. “My trainers, Ramesh Kumar and Muthu Kumar, have been my guiding force. They noticed that I was good behind the wheel, and suggested that I lease a vehicle and work as a private driver,” she shares. In her three years of snaking in and out of the nooks and crannies of the city, Veeralakshmi gained the trust of her customers.

Her commitment to picking them up and dropping them, despite rain or sunshine, fetched her a whole lot of goodwill and loyalty. “I have had to traverse some difficult paths, some dingy areas, but I always made sure that the customers were dropped off right outside their gates. Their safety was also important. They thought I was brave for doing so because even some male drivers used to ask them to alight at some dark, unsafe roads, and walk home ” she shares.

In response to her care and concern , Veeralakshmi received love and encouragement from her passengers, who asked her to enhance her skills. It was following such advice from a good Samaritan that she applied for a government job. “But to get a government job, I was told that I needed to have a certificate. So I did a Diploma in Automobile Technology from Annamalai University in Chidambaram in 2018-19,” she shares.

Making a mark
Life continued as usual, until the lockdown happened when she looked for timely and meaningful opportunities to use her professional skills to help the corona warriors. If not now, then when, she contemplated. As if listening to her heart’s desire, the universe rewarded her with a possibility when GVK’s 108 Ambulance announced recruitment for ambulance pilots in June.

Friends and family reminded her that this is a male-dominated profession, but Veeralakshmi’s confidence remained steady. For the officials, it was a first — to consider a woman’s application. “I told them about my experience as a driver and asked them to let me take a test. I was asked to meet them with all the necessary documents for an on-road test.

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I was warned that I would be monitored closely. During the test, they seemed happy with my driving, and that gave me confidence,” she narrates. Such has been her passion for learning that even though the ambulance pilot training was for a month, Veeralakshmi completed it within a few days. “When I was driving cabs, I used to attend any workshop that was related to my job. I did courses on first aid, fire safety, etc., which were also taught during the ambulance pilot training,” she shares.

The plan was to join the fleet in June itself, but the call didn’t come through. Little did she know that her hard work and dedication would be well worth the wait. “I learned from GVK that I was the first female ambulance driver in India, and that at a launch function for ambulances, CM Edapaddi K Palaniswami would announce about my recruitment.

Till then I had doubts, but to my surprise, the officials told me that it was a matter of pride for them to have a female driver in their fleet,” she opens up. After a wait for almost two months, at the launch event on August 31, the chief minister announced her induction — a cherished moment for Veeralakshmi. “The ministers present at the event encouraged me; the deputy chief minister was glad that a woman would be joining the fleet. I was also asked to drive the ambulance in their presence, during the flagoff,” she says, with a hint of shy-pride.

Seeking satisfaction
It was also important for Veeralakshmi to ensure that her family, especially her children Dharinishree and Harish Karthikeyan, stayed aware of the risks involved in her job during this pandemic. Every job, she explained to her family members, comes with risks but if you love something, then these risks cannot stop you. A resident of Thiruverkadu, Veeralakshmi has been assigned the Government Hospital in Avadi. Her work starts at 8 am and ends at 8 pm. “Initially, I had three-four cases a day.

Some days, I get around seven cases. We are assigned cases based on where we are located. We have been provided with the necessary kits. If it is a noncorona case, I wear only gloves and mask. But, when it is a corona case, I wear the entire kit,” she shares. At the end of each day, upon returning home, Veeralakshmi follows all precautions necessary — taking a bath and washing all her clothes. Drinking hot water, twice a day, she believes, helps her stay healthy.

While she had to settle for lesser pay, compared to her previous job as a cab driver, it is the sense of fulfilment that matters, she says. “When the family of a patient, who I have never met before, holds my hands and thanks me for coming on time and saving their loved ones’ lives, or the elders bless me, I feel good that I have impacted their lives in some way. This is a different feeling,” she notes.

Future goals
Putting to rest the stereotypes of misogynistic attitude in this profession, Veeralakshmi’s male counterparts have been affable to the extent of constantly advising her to be safe. While this has been welcoming, Veeralakshmi’s main concern is the lack of restrooms for women. “All drivers, especially women, face this issue. We have to stop at a private hotel or a petrol bunk to relieve ourselves. Since I am attached to a hospital, I use the facilities there.

This is one of the reasons that we don’t see many women in this field,” she rues. On days when she is not driving the ambulance, Veeralakshmi is busy being an instructor at the NSCC Silambam Academy. “I have been a statelevel silambam player and have won two gold medals,” she shares. A diligent student of a teacher called life, Veeralakshmi pursued a Bachelors degree in Commerce after her marriage. “Now I want to do an MBA… and something related to my field.

I am interested in Psychology,” says the multi-tasker, for whom the sky seems to be the limit. She believes that women can do anything if they have clarity about their goals. “If you believe in something, give it a shot. You can do anything you set your mind to…all you need is practice and guidance,” says Veeralakshmi, standing true to her name – a brave warrior, who we need in these uncertain times, reminding us to follow our dreams.



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