Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Doctor with a difference

The Statesman

Jose Kalathil

IF a doctor leaves his flourishing practice in his village and works for those ostracised by society, he is likely to be called crazy. Dr Chinkholal Thangsing from Manipur's Churachandpur is an exception. He had the guts and commitment to do this.

Popularly known as Dr Lal (meaning king), he has brought fame and recognition to the state and the country. The Cambodian government has honoured him with a prestigious award for his contribution towards humanitarian services in that country. He is the Asia Pacific bureau chief of an international organisation, Aids Healthcare Foundation.

The award — “Royal Order of Sahametrei” — is conferred primarily on foreigners who have rendered distinguished services to the king and to the nation by royal decree of the King of Cambodia. It consists of a clip, medal and a citation.

“The award recognised Thangsing’s exemplary contribution and dedication towards humanitarian services rendered by him and the organisation for the people living with HIV/Aids and the general public in Cambodia,” the citation said.

Giving away the award, Cambodia health minister Mam Bun Heng said, “This is a big honour and my proud privilege to hand over the ‘Sahametrei’ to you, to honour and recognise your selfless dedication and contribution to better the lives of our people.”

What made Dr Lal change the course of his life? He recalls, “A good friend of mine and a class mate, whose wife had lost a lot of blood during her first delivery, needed transfusion. Unfortunately, the blood was contaminated. She had full-blown Aids, which infected her husband also. The two died, leaving behind their little son, who also died soon. Thus, the disease wiped out the whole family. It is tough when somebody, whose hand you have held, loved and cared for, passes away.”

In 1990, there were 400 Aids cases in his village alone, mainly caused by contaminated injections. Subsequently, he helped set up India’s first home-based care centre for Aids patients in his village. That was two decades ago, when people of his remote dwelling knew little about HIV. A fervent believer in the holistic approach to Aids treatment, Dr Lal attempts to address the emotional, physical and spiritual wellbeing of his patients. “That is their fundamental right,” he believes.

“I have seen people live on not because they are aware of their plight but for the fact that I was bothering to touch them,” he says. “Most doctors usually look at an Aids patient from a distance and prescribe medicine. They don’t realise what that negative attitude does to the patient,” he says.

In 1997, when he came to Delhi to visit his sister, who was studying, he found there were several Aids patients who had been denied treatment by government hospitals. In the same year, with the help of the National Aids Control Organisation, he started six care centres. The visit changed his life completely. Next year, he filed a public interest litigation case on Aids patients’ rights. He also opened an HIV-Aids care clinic, through which he started advocacy, training for doctors, and made the patients aware of their rights.

Meanwhile, he joined an NGO, Sahara, and later an American NGO, Project Concern. He also started community programmes in Imphal, Churachandpur (Lankatau) and in Dimapur, Nagaland. He also worked with the National Aids Control Programme in Assam.

In 2001, he went to the USA where anti-retroviral therapy had just been started by the Aids Healthcare Foundation, which is the largest non-profit HIV/Aids healthcare, research, prevention and education provider. Soon, he joined the organisation as its head of the Asia Pacific bureau, which operates in Cambodia, China, India, Thailand, Vietnam and Nepal.

The AHF was established in the USA in 1987 to provide hospice care for people living with HIV-Aids in the country. The foundation ensures that the best treatment and care is given to the affected, regardless of caste, creed or religion. This is a unique NGO working for the welfare of HIV-Aids affected and among drug-users. It has so far given expensive medicines free and counselling to 70,000 people in five continents. It has a target of one million tests by next World Aids Day.

The organisation later began to spread out, with headquarters in Amsterdam and three regional offices in Latin America and the Caribbean, Asia-Pacific and Africa. Another for Europe will be opened soon.

He says the high prevalence areas in the country are Manipur and Nagaland, where it mainly spreads through the contaminated injection of drugs. In Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, it spreads through sex. He believes poverty and illiteracy play a major role in fuelling the epidemic. In Arunachal Pradesh, the number of cases are fewer.

He says, “What I am doing is nothing big, as it is a doctor’s job to give relief to patients. The smiles on patients’ faces are what gives me satisfaction. I am always there for them.”

He has also composed and directed a song, “Song of Hope”, for those patients who die without hope.

(The author is editorial consultant, The Statesman, Delhi.)

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