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Touching the untouchables

Hyderabad, I will miss you.  The anticipated wail of the muezzin calling the Islamic faith to prayer five times throughout the day.  (And the few Hyderabad-native Hindu colleagues who would announce “that was the call to prayer for Muslims!” then speculatively, “it happens seven or so times a day…”)  The most flavorful variety of chutneys from coconut to mango to ginger – stubbornly scrumptious and unfailingly trending toward transient numbness and tingling of the lips.  The frequent demonstrations of public urination, the most impressive being a cow sizeable and astonishing enough to stop rush hour traffic not limited to milk trucks, rickshaws, city buses, auto-rickshaws, family-packed vans, and any other form of transport imaginable.  The vibrantly colored garb elegantly distinguishing women of all ages, ethnicities, aspirations.  And Lord knows (or one of His/Her 330 million extremities), I will darn well miss the Indian head waggling!

Most of all, I will miss being witness to the trail blazed so passionately in this city by a few individuals of TRUE entrepreneurial spirit.  These remarkable people we have had the honor and pleasure of spending time with—and procuring wisdom from—overlap in their circles (if you will) of social justice, health/wellbeing, and humanity.  Innovatively, and devotedly, they have designed and implemented practices to welcome and serve the widely marginalized.  In opening doors to those with HIV/AIDS or leprosy, as examples, they accept sizeable risks each day as such patients are ostracized by their families, friends, and worst of all, the health care system itself – as caretakers, they too, may become shunned.  Yet their margin for ‘profit’ is unquantifiable: I can only imagine the rewards granted to those restoring health, solace, and hope to a people only knowing illness in the infinite forms it may manifest.

To give a few examples…

Meet KG, a 70-ish year old man whose enthusiasm for hand and foot tendons is unrivaled.  In charge of the physiotherapy center at Sivananda Rehabilitation Home, he spent the entire morning engaging us in every strategy possible to restore opposition to the opposable thumb, incorporating hydrotherapy, electrical stimulation, and naturally, the use of “local language…. jokes.”  Sivananda (est. 1958) provides free food, shelter, education and clothing “for nearly 500 destitute persons who, though cured of leprosy, have nowhere to go.”  A 50-acre campus also housing an orphanage and school for HIV-positive children, Sivananda is HOME to many in need not only of a roof above their heads, but a community.


Next meet LS, a female scientist trained in biochemistry and molecular biology (and subsequently, counseling!) who, along with her husband, a physician, started tending to patients with HIV/AIDS in their Hyderabadi home some 9 years ago.  When a few patients became tens and then hundreds, they founded Nireekshana (est. 2004), “a health and research project striving to give fullness of life, health and a spirit of hope to those affected by HIV/AIDS by providing counseling, medical, emotional, and spiritual care.”  Serving a panel of more than 4,000 patients, their mission echoes throughout the colorful walls of their waiting room where they play gentle music and distribute chai to patients and staff alike.


Finally, meet RA and MA, the couple mentioned below by James and Kari who run the Snehakiran Community Care Center (est. 2004, reopened 2008), a 30-bed ward for those living with HIV/AIDS.  Moving from the U.S. with their two children to pursue “what we have been called to do” as they kindly shared, the name says it all: Snehakiran = Ray of Love.  Many of their patients are co-infected with tuberculosis, many even MDR-TB, and have yet to once receive the care of a doctor or nurse.  As many patients present at very advanced stages of disease, they focus on counseling patients, treating opportunistic infections, and providing palliative care.  About one patient dies each week.  Dr. Ravi candidly expressed, “In India, respect is everything.  HIV patients need respect.  For patients to get better, they themselves must feel like life is worth living.  A lot of times this can come with the simple act of resting your hand on a shoulder.  Love provided by gentle touch is incredibly valuable.  This is often our best healing power.  For this reason, we make the effort to physically touch every single patient.”


In just over two weeks, we experienced Indian health care delivered by a rigorous academic institution (NIMS), a bustling government ART center (Osmania), a much quieter reserve for the sickest HIV-TB patients (Snehakiran), an NGO intersecting research and HIV/AIDS care, and a rehabilitation home for those destitute with leprosy (Sivananda).  Each with a unique yet noble purpose, these organizations are serving individuals who would otherwise not know care and nurturing by the medical profession.  The personnel behind these initiatives are restoring humanity to the very nature of our being human, capable of succumbing to illness, pain and suffering.  Deeply inspiring, KG, LS, RA and MA are catalysts to a better way – they are trailblazers defying stigma, entrepreneurs in their own right, humans cultivating humanity.

These individuals exemplify the notion of health care as a RIGHT through their nonjudgmental and unprecedented way of touching the untouchables

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