Healthcare warriors: These women lead the path amid challenging times

While a day is being observed to raise awareness about women’s health, what we often fail to notice are women working in this field.
Monalisa Padhee (last row, third from left) with women at a programme at Barefoot College
Monalisa Padhee (last row, third from left) with women at a programme at Barefoot College

Sometime in the last week of March, the name of Dr Minal Dakhave Bhosale was splashed all across newspapers and television channels.

The virologist from Pune, whom very few people knew until then, had given India its first commercially approved coronavirus testing kit.

Even as the media hailed her as the new corona warrior, she was wheeled into the operation theatre, where she underwent a C-sec to deliver a baby girl.

Bhosale from MyLabs Discovery, a molecular diagnostic company, had worked on the testing kit while in her third trimester, meeting both a professional and a personal milestone. 

It’s not Bhosale alone driving innovation, there are many others who are trailblazers in their chosen fields, in one way or the other around the healthcare sector.

For instance, Swati Subodh, a scientist, has moved out of the comfortable confines of her lab to find solutions for rural communities.

Dr Miniya Chatterji may be based out of Goa, but that hasn’t stopped her from building a pop-up hospital in Kerala and Mumbai for Covid-19 patients. 

It was the International Day of Action for Women’s Health on May 28.

While a day is being observed to raise awareness about women’s health, what we often fail to notice are women working in this field.

What about women in healthcare innovation? A few like Akansha Kukreja, Kshititi Nagarkar or Swarnima Bhattacharya didn’t study science in university but their work in the healthcare field can’t be undermined. 

Anu Acharya is a name to reckon with in genomics while Jasdeep Mago is fighting an unending battle against stigma associated with mental health.

Monalisa Padhee left postdoctoral research in Australia to create healthcare solutions for rural women while Rajashri Padmanabhi had the foresight to prepare masks for India even before it was declared a pandemic.  

While Bhosale certainly made it to the headlines, not everyone gets hailed in equal measure, some remain just a footnote.

We profile a few enterprising women making significant contributions to healthcare today.

 Genome Genius Anu Acharya, 48  Entrepreneur, Hyderabad

She joined the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, as it was her childhood dream to be a physicist just like her father.

Growing up in Bikaner, Rajasthan, conversations at home revolved around science. But a few years in IIT and she realised her heart wasn’t in Physics after all.

Post her stint in the US—studying Information Systems followed by working at several companies—Acharya returned to Hyderabad to start Ocimum Biosolutions, a bioinformatics company. In a few years, the company became a global genomics outsourcing partner. “By 2011, we had over 11 years of expertise in genomics. It was time to start thinking about the next level. Can we impact people’s lives?” recalls Acharya.

Around this time, the study of genomics was gaining traction. Armed with decade-long experience in the field, a state-of-the-art laboratory, a team of bioinformatics experts, and access to databases, Acharya registered her company Mapmygenome in 2012. It also started offering Genomepatri, a first-of-its-kind personalised health solution, with genetic counselling and lifestyle recommendations. 

A take-off on janampatri (horoscope), Genomepatri is a preventive screen for identifying potential health risks and concerns that arise due to changes in the genetic code. “DNA-based changes can put someone at risk for drug-induced adverse effects, too, which is covered in the test. By knowing about these risks beforehand, one can minimise risk and adverse outcomes,” Acharya explains. They also included factors like severity to SARS-CoV and drugs that are currently used. Getting to know about your personal response can be helpful for the physician treating. Also the knowledge can help build immunity.

At present, Acharya is getting her lab ready for Covid-19 testing, and advising states on testing strategies including community testing and the use of antibody tests. And when not consumed by genomes, she finds her solace in poetry and has published a collection titled ‘Atomic Pohe’.

Protein Powerhouse Monalisa Padhee, 32 Medical Researcher, Rajasthan

Her father wasn’t too happy with her decision of reverse migration. While he had left a small village in Odisha to move to a city for better career prospects, his daughter left Australia and moved to a small village in India.

“All this while I was doing things to live up to expectations of my father or do what is considered a path for a ‘settled life’. Even though I enjoyed research, I wanted to understand the issues faced by rural women in India,” says Padhee, who grew up in Sambalpur, Odisha, and had moved to Australia for her PhD.

She is currently the Program Head of Women Wellness Initiative, Enriche, at Barefoot College, a grassroots social enterprise in Rajasthan. 

Based out of Tilona village, she works with community health workers in more than 30 villages in the state. Padhee joined Barefoot College under a Youth for India fellowship in 2015 and a year later started working in their Tilona campus.

Her team works to fight malnutrition in rural women through awareness, research, and by reviving indigenous products.

Padhee would like people to look at innovation beyond technological advancements. She says innovation is about demystifying a solution, so that “it can be put in the hands of rural people to make them self-reliant.”

For her, innovation is creating content and engaging with a population that cannot read. 

Her decision to return to India is her “most fulfilling decision ever taken”. Currently in the US on another fellowship, Padhee rues how the society often glorifies young urban graduates coming back and working for rural communities

. “We fail to acknowledge how these communities have fulfilled our own lives. The rural people have taught me true power lies in the collective strength of the communities,” she says. Her team is now working on addressing issues arising out of Covid-19. A trained folk dancer, Padhee often uses music and dance to break barriers.

Colour Therapist Akansha Kukreja, 27 Graphic Designer, New York City

How often do you come across a graphic designer who wants to work exclusively in women’s healthcare?

Meet Akansha Kukreja, a visual designer at Tia clinic—which delivers gynaecology, primary care and evidence-based wellness, online and offline—where part of her work involves designing communication. Her innovation lies in making complex concepts easier for the masses through design.

“My first day at Tia exposed me to so much more than I could ever imagine. The clinic does not feel like a doctor’s office and actually makes you feel less intimidated,” Kukreja says.

“I realised that my understanding of female healthcare (and my own body) was so limited and this could be the case for so many women. I remember sitting down with the resident gynaecologist at the time and asking so many questions,” she recalls. 

As a young girl growing up in Mumbai, Kukreja often used illustration, colour and typography to communicate what she wanted to say.

With a communication design degree from Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology in Bengaluru, she moved to New York for her master’s and since then has made the city her home.

In the lockdown, Kukreja’s work has increased manifold. In the wake of increasing cases and paranoia in New York City, Tia recently started offering Antibody Testing.

“My recent project consisted of helping people understand what this test does, how the immune system works and what testing positive or negative could mean,” she says. 

Space Maker Dr Miniya Chatterji, 42  Sustainability Incubator, Goa

Locked down in Goa, Dr Miniya Chatterji built a pop-up hospital in Kerala in less than a week. She has also converted a vacant building into an isolation facility in Mumbai for Covid-19 patients.

As the number of coronavirus cases rise in India, Chatterji, who is director and founder of the Centre of Sustainability at the Anant National University in Ahmedabad, is preparing quarantine centres and exclusive Covid-19 hospitals.

Chatterji’s job is to make businesses function sustainably. “In India, I had set up the centre for research at Anant where we ‘think, teach and do’,” she says over a call from Goa. The phone call that we manage to have is on a weekday, late evening, once she has settled her two-year-old son to bed. Chatterji, who is also the CEO and founder of Sustain Lab Paris (a sustainability incubator), is converting the university campus into a sustainable model through her company.

When India had just about 400 cases, Chatterji and her team chalked out a plan and reached out to the group ‘Parliamentarians with Innovators for India’.

“Through the group, I got introduced to the Thiruvananthapuram local body and from there work got started,” she says. She is now a government-approved vendor to convert vacant government and non-government spaces into temporary Covid-19 recovery facilities. She does this all in a span of three to five days.

In Mumbai, Chatterji has converted three centres—in Najam Baugh, St Xavier’s College and Dongri. “The whole idea is to make it extremely affordable. So we came up with laminated corrugated cardboard beds, which can take the weight of seven people and is priced at Rs 1,300. A hospital bed made of steel is at the moment is priced at Rs 5,000,” she explains. 

At 42, Chatterji has held prominent positions—a policy analyst to former French President Jacques Chirac, a banker with Goldman Sachs in London, and a few years’ stint at the World Economic Forum—before returning to India after 14 years.

“I joined the Jindal Steel & Power Group as their Chief Sustainability Officer in 2014 and at that time not many organisations had this position. Three years later, I started Sustain Labs Paris.”

The author of Indian Instincts, a collection of essays on India, also teaches a master’s course, six weeks a year, at SciencesPo Paris, a university in France.

Designer  of Hope Kshititi Nagarkar, 46  Healthcare Architect, Mumbai

It’s an all-women team. And they only build healthcare facilities. If anyone were to ask Kshititi Nagarkar, principal architect of Shree Designs, a Mumbai-based firm that specialises in healthcare design, what made her stick to the above two exclusivity, she laughs off.

“The first was partly coincidence, partly planned (all-women team) and the other was the need to fill the infrastructure gaps that existed in tier II and tier III cities,” she says.  

Nagarkar knew she had to construct buildings while in high school. And she knew she had to build hospitals when she was studying architecture.

“In 1997, India was completing its 50 years of independence and a lot was published in the newspapers. What caught my attention were the articles on healthcare—mentioning lacuna in terms of bed ratio to population, lack of clean environments and resources for facilities. This prompted me to take up M.Arch with Healthcare major,” Nagarkar recalls.

 Shree Designs, which started operations in 2009, focuses on healthcare architecture.

“Our motto of creating healing spaces is a challenge that encourages us to push our creative and logical limits,” she says. A recent achievement for Shree Designs has been the company’s empanelment with National Health Mission (NHM), a project by the Central government, to improve healthcare infrastructure in urban as well as rural areas throughout the country.

The company follows the principle of ‘patient-centred care’ with the consumer as the focal point. Their innovations revolve around design of lighting and acoustics of the indoor space to cater to the sensitivity of the patient, design using green materials and creating modular spaces for multi-functional use.

Adaptable re-use of commercial spaces that are converted into healthcare facilities is their core area of expertise.Nagarkar’s forte lies in how she has managed to create spaces that aren’t just stereotypical. So she creates spaces that are less intimidating and more comforting. 

“Healthcare mainly follows the dictum ‘form follows function’. That being said, we (as patients) dread the stark and stoic spaces, which are often done in the garb of sanitation and sterility. I believe that we need to design these spaces to be more humane so as to support healing.”

People’s Patron Swati Subodh, 42 Scientist, Delhi 

If there’s a problem, Swati Subodh will find a solution. She is someone who would rather look at taking practical solutions from her research onto the field than keep herself confined to the lab. This outlook was shaped while she was working for her doctoral thesis at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS).

“It was here that I realised the dichotomy in healthcare equity. People travelled from all across the country and spent many sleepless nights on the pavement waiting for their appointment.

"With technology, resources and human intelligence advancing, why is a basic facility like healthcare so siloed and heavily punctuated? It prompted me to look at healthcare in a totally different light,” she says. Having worked for a decade in the field of biotechnology and genomics, she decided it was time to make a social impact.   

As a result, she co-founded 1M1B (1 million for 1 billion) along with her brother, in 2014.

It is a UN-accredited non-profit and affiliated to the UN Department of Global Communications and UN Economic and Social Council. The idea was to activate a million people to impact a billion people.

The organisation identifies grassroots entrepreneurs and helps them create healthcare initiatives by providing resources or connecting them to tech or healthcare giants. “We are building local solutions to our backyard issues,” she adds.

As a senior scientist, Subodh also contributes to a philanthropic fund, which aims at promoting healthcare innovations.

“I try to share my perspectives of the challenging healthcare landscape as a scientist, public health professional and an entrepreneur,” she says, while discussing her role as a faculty at educational institutes and as a member of several national health committees.

The pandemic has reinforced her vision for working with the communities. “With reverse migration happening as a result of loss of jobs in the cities and the resultant effects on the socioeconomic environment, it is quite evident why we need to focus more on developing our villages,” she explains.

Her heart also resides in Indian art forms, which prompted her to start Aadyantara, a non-profit for their promotion. “Kathak has always been a part of my life—it has a meditative and therapeutic effect,” says the classical dancer. 

Her biggest pet peeve is not having corporates look beyond their CSR goals. “The most difficult aspect of our work has been to motivate large organisations to contribute their resources to a bigger mandate for villages. Presently, limited funds are available for funding work in the villages in a sustainable manner,” she rues.

“We aim to create a leadership pipeline of changemakers for the future by skilling our youth. We are also working with women to empower them to address  the issues of their communities.” 

Care Curator Swarnima  Bhattacharya, 28 Holistic Healthcare Provider, Delhi

Nearly two years ago, Swarnima Bhattacharya had a discomforting realisation. “I noticed the various gaps when it came to women’s health in India.

It is medically under-researched and culturally blindsided. There is a lack of medical understanding, research and public health policy directed towards women’s health. Cultural shame and stigma also surround the issue.”

That she says is how her vision to provide a holistic caregiving platform for women’s health became a reality and TheaCare—a pan-India portal—was born.

The overall idea is to evolve into a hyperlocal discovery platform for all services that are relevant for women’s health.

Be it access to a safe creche or a lactation consultant or somebody who is a pelvic floor specialist or a trusted gynaecologist, the platform helps to find the trustworthy experts near your location. 

Originally from Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, and now living in Delhi, Swarnima stresses TheaCare is different from other similar portals.

“We discuss the fact that women need the right kind of support and the evidence-based solutions to focus on their nutrition, lifestyle and mental health.”  

Though the platform supports all kinds of treatments—Allopathy, Ayurveda or Homeopathy—its believes that for any sustainable health change the most important intervention has to come through nutrition, lifestyle, improving your gut health, metabolic health, sleep cycle and finding a support system.

“We are trying to redefine the culture of care around women,” she says.

Swarnima also organises Femmecon, which is India’s first women health festival, to create a space where various stakeholders from women’s health space come together to identify the gaps and brainstorm solutions to improve the condition of women health.

“Even in this time and age, women entrepreneurs face sociocultural hurdles,” she says. Despite the roadblocks, she had people who had her back. “We always had people who believed in us,” she smiles.

“We are not just here to talk about the illnesses that women are facing whether it is hormonal or menstrual. We are here to talk about bringing ‘care’ back into ‘healthcare’ when it comes to women’s health.”

Mass Masketeer  Rajashree Padmanabhi, 28  Public Policy Analyst, Delhi

It was the first batch of masks from MaskforIndia and they had delivered it to policemen in Nagpur. But the men in uniform handed it over to labourers on the street, made a small ‘thank you’ note and sent it to Rajashree Padmanabhi.

Such kindness is what keeps this Delhi girl going. In her day job, she does number crunching, writes about climate and energy. And in the evening, she is busy identifying women who will make masks.

It was sheer curiosity in the emergence of an unusual epidemic (no, it wasn’t declared a pandemic till then) in China that made Padmanabhi read up extensively on coronavirus.

And when the epidemic turned into a pandemic, this public policy specialist knew that masks were going to be in huge demand in the coming months.

“It was early March and most of the experts in the field till then were talking about how masks were essential only for health workers or sick people.

"But I knew that it was just a matter of time and everyone would require masks. It was common sense,” Padmanabhi talks about the initiative over phone. She and a bunch of friends staying in Germany and the Netherlands started ‘MaskforIndia’, which provided free, reusable cloth masks. 

A civil engineer by training, Padmanabhi, 28, did her master’s from Tata Institute of Social Sciences and later London School of Economics.

Currently, she works as a policy analyst on climate finance. With a network of 40 NGOs, independent boutiques and tailors, they have now moved to the next stage.

“Until now, it was a match-making process. But now we have started raising funds to pay these NGOs,” she says.   

The plan for MaskforIndia now is to get more women’s network on board, have funds in place and look at creating livelihood.

“Once the lockdown eases, we are planning to approach corporates to buy masks for their employees. We are also looking at starting it as a marketplace,” she says. She now wants the government to step in as scaling based on donations is a challenge. 

“It started as a social media awareness campaign. Then we launched a website, where we connected the NGOs making masks with those that required them. Also, we knew it could be an option for livelihood for a lot of women who have lost their jobs.” 

Keeper of Calm Jasdeep Mago, 27  Neuropsychologist, Mumbai

For many, Jasdeep Mago could well be their invisible friend as she intends to make mental health a top priority and ensure basic health service for all.

The neuropsychologist from Mumbai who co-founded ‘Invisible Illness’ wants to erase the stigma associated with mental health and works actively on suicide prevention through campaigns, workshops and training sessions. “Suicide is never impulsive, it’s well thought-out. Every such person should have someone to talk to and should receive timely intervention; it can be prevented,” says the 27-year-old, who started the organisation when she lost one of her friends to suicide. 

Mago isn’t your conventional therapist.

She uses events to discuss mental health issues and conducts public events to spread the word. So her favourite form of spreading awareness on mental health arises out of art therapy, music lessons and dance. At the forefront of her practice lie her own struggles with anxiety and depression.

And Mago never shies away from talking about it. “In fact, my approach to treatment is more from my own experiences.

"It is more holistic because I have seen mental health up, close and personal. My personal struggle with depression is my biggest driving force. No one should suffer the same pain,” she recalls.

If it wasn’t for her extreme anxiety she would have been a psychiatrist.

“I was keen on studying brain and had originally set out to study medicine. But because of severe anxiety I had barely been able to clear my Boards. I gave up on studying five years of medicine, so the next logical step was paramedical and to be as close to psychiatry,” says Mago, who pursued a master’s in clinical neuropsychology from the UK.

The youngest in the family of three children, Mago had put extreme pressure on herself to outshine.

“I was an average student but I wanted to be exceptional,” she recalls. By the time she was 24, she had a major depressive episode and took medication, tried alternative therapies and came out of it successfully.

So even as some may question her skills in helping people, having suffered herself from depression, Mago maintains that her clients connect with her because of her personal ordeal.

“When I say ‘I understand’ to my patients, it isn’t theoretical. I have been on the other side,” she says. Mago conducts awareness campaigns in schools, runs a subsidised clinic and also works with corporates.

“We do training sessions in corporate houses and at schools our work is mainly with teachers. We train teachers on how to respond to mental health issues of students as primary respondents,” she explains. 

“I look at mental health strategy as a collaborative approach—art, music are all an integral part of recovery from mental illness.”

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