Dr Rajagopal remembers being elated that day. He had just made a cancer patient pain-free with his nerve-numbing techniques. Proud of his anaesthetic skills, he slept in peace that night only to wake up to the news of that patient’s suicide the next day.
The man, who was suffering from tongue cancer, was referred to Rajagopal by his oncologist. He was expecting advanced treatments from Rajagopal. Instead, Rajagopal, an anaesthesia specialist, told him unless the pain persists, there was no need for him to come for further treatment. That was when it hit the patient that he was ultimately going to die.
The incident changed Rajagopal’s approach to medicine. “Until then, like Arjuna from Mahabharat, I only saw nerves in a patient. Had I looked at him in a different way, his children would have had their dad for another two years. This was a turnaround for me,” says Rajagopal , who was recently honoured with the Alison Des Forges Award for Extraordinary Activism.
Thereafter, Rajagopal began reading books related to palliative care and began treating terminally-ill patients as part of a small initiative at Kozhikode Medical College. He also attended a pain-and-palliative care workshop conducted by a British nurse Gilly Burt.
After the workshop Rajagopal asked Gilly to visit his little initiative, which she did. There she suggested that Rajagopal undergo hospice training in Oxford. “And in a few weeks she got me a scholarship for a 10-week course. With Gilly’s help I got to learn the basics of palliative care from the legendary Robert Twycross,” says Rajagopal. Once Rajagopal returned, his friend Dr Suresh Kumar, also joined the venture. Later, Ashok Kumar, a friend of Suresh, and the only non-doctor among the founders, also joined them.
“Suresh is the unsung hero of our palliative endeavour. It was his presence in the system that brought in more volunteers who hold no medical degrees,” says Rajagopal.
At first, the three had registered a Pain and Palliative Care Society in Kozhikode in 1993. By 1994 it has become a full-fledged palliative care centre, where patients admitted themselves for hospice care. Within two years, WHO approved it as a demonstration project. “In 2002, after my retirement I felt that even after 10 years of palliative care, it has not grown beyond Kerala. I realised a national-level palliative system is needed. That is how Pallium India was formed. Eventually, we set up centres in Delhi, Indore and Chennai,” says Rajagopal.
The corridors of the Arumana Hospital at Thiruvananthapuram reverberate with peace and positivity. Rajagopal’s team works day and night helping patients find comfort and making their final goodbyes less painful.
For Bindu Nair, a volunteer, it was the moving speech made by Dr Rajagopal at a fund-raising event, which changed her life. This middle-aged housewife, who has been working with children at the Sree Avittom Thirunal Hospital for the past four years, finds her job most fulfilling. “We listen to the mothers of the children, who just want a shoulder to cry on, and that is all we provide,” says Bindu.
It was during one of his visits to Kozhikode Medical College in 1993 that inspired Binod, one of the trustees of Pallium India, to be a part of Dr Rajagopal’s initiative. “I was taken aback by the scene I witnessed in a small room which was allotted to Dr Rajagopal for his initiative. There was laughter, love and kindness among the patients. I saw a little girl, suffering from cancer, laughing and playing on the floor. She died in a matter of months. But she was happy till the end,” says Binod.