Sharon Spendlove – preparation for the Diocesan Visit to India

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Sharon Spendlove (Naas parish), offers an insight into the team’s preparation, the journey and the hospitality experienced in India:

I was one of the very fortunate group of people who travelled to India with The Leprosy Mission to learn more about the work that is carried on in the Karigiri and Vadathorsalur Hospitals. I was also very lucky because my daughter Hannah joined us on the trip so it was a great experience to share with her.

We started planning for the trip last November and it seemed like a very long time to wait until our departure date of Easter Monday, 17th April.  The group got together in March for a getting to know you session and to get some information and a rough plan for what we would be doing during our stay in India and it was lovely to put faces to the names before jetting off on our trip.

Our adventure began in Dublin Airport at about 11.45 am on the 17th April when all members of the group and their family members met in the Departure lounge to say our goodbyes.  Everyone was very excited, and somewhat nervous, about what we were going to experience.  For most of us, it was our first time on a long haul flight so that was an experience in itself.  Our journey began with a flight from Dublin to Dubai which took 6 ½ hours and we travelled 5,932 Km.  We had a 2 hour layover in Dubai and then caught a flight to Chennai.  This flight took 3 ½ hours and covered 2,955 km.  We arrived in Chennai Airport at 8.30 am local time where we were met by our minibus and driver, Daniel.  We then had a 2 hour drive to Karigiri which covered 170 km approx..

We arrived in Karigiri Hospital and were met by Dr. Mannam Ebeneezer the Director of the Hospital.  Ken Gibson allocated our rooms in the guest house where we settled in.  We then had lunch, served by the best Indian chef called Dia who looked after us very well during our week long stay.

Karigiri Hospital is a General Medical Hospital, which is located in Southern India in the region of Tamil Nadu in a rural setting which is the quietest most peaceful place.  Grey monkeys and chipmunks roam around the grounds along with geckos, frogs and our slithery “friends” the snake (which thankfully we did not see at any point on our trip).  We were all very thankful to the security guards who roamed the grounds of the campus at night time blowing their whistles to scare away any unwanted predators.  We were informed at the end of the trip that cobras, rattlesnakes and pythons inhabit the area and I’m sure we are all agreed that we were glad we didn’t encounter them!

The chef and guesthouse manager Dia, looked after us extremely well.  We were well fed and looked after by her and her team.  For breakfast, we were served either cornflakes or porridge and papaya and we could also have rice and different Indian breads should we so wish.  The teenagers amongst us were very happy with the sweet bread and biscotti spread which was served every morning.

A typical lunch was tomato / chicken soup for starters, rice, two choices of main course – usually a chicken dish and a vegetarian option, curried cauliflower, cucumber and tomatoes, poppadoms and naan bread.

For dinner, we would be offered a flavoured rice dish, two main courses, again usually a chicken dish and a vegetarian option and dessert of fruit & custard or fruit and ice-cream.

I must also mention the cakes we were offered at our 11 o’clock break – they were delicious and came from a bakery in Vellore called “Darling Cakes” – they certainly lived up to their name.  We had chocolate cake, coconut cake, carrot cake and plain sponge varieties.  The coffee and tea were lovely also.  Indian people usually drink their coffee black and their tea sweet and milky!

We were also blessed to meet Dr Valsa who took us under her wing and invited us to her home for homemade chocolate cake and some Indian hospitality! She also took on the role of tour guide and showed us around Vellore and brought us to a typical local supermarket and two lovely Indian clothes shops so we could buy some Indian Saris. We affectionately called her Auntie Valsa and she is certainly a lifelong friend to all of us. 

One cannot write a piece about India without mentioning the people. The people of Karigiri and Vada are amazing. Everyone is so warm, welcoming, generous with their time and indeed their giving both physically and spiritually.  It struck us all how everyone, the doctors, the nurses, the administrative staff and everyone we encountered on our trip go about their daily lives in such a way that they want to help people and endeavour to get the best out of everyone by the way they care for each other.

All patients in the hospital are treated with care, patience and devotion. Everyone is treated as equal regardless of their needs, their family circumstances, their means or their illness. Patients are looked after in every aspect, from diagnosis, to treatment, to recovery, to rehabilitation, to retraining in life skills, to mental and spiritual wellness. You cannot help but feel loved and well cared for in both hospitals.

Financial means are not taken into account when considering whether a person needs treatment or not. Patients are billed according to their means and are charged accordingly – if you can afford to pay in full for your treatment you do so, if you can only pay part of the fee you only pay what you can afford and if you are too poor to pay anything, which applies to most leprosy patients, your fees are written off.

The doctors are paid about €5000 per annum and are provided with accommodation on campus. Their salaries would be a lot larger (between €30,000-40,000 if they worked in a larger hospital in a big city) but they feel that God has called them to work as part of the team in Karigiri or Vada. They believe that God works through them to help people who need help.  We were told many stories of how the staff have helped patients improve their lot, visit leprosy patients in their own homes to provide company and support for those who have been shunned by their own families, and help students to pay their college fees if they run into difficulties. We were told of one nursing student who couldn’t pay her college fees of €1000 for her third year in college, so the staff of Karigiri hospital got together and donated what they could afford to pay her fees so she could continue with her education. 

The doctors and nurses take it in turns to visit the local retirement village along with their immediate and extended family to cook and serve dinner to the residents on their days off so that they feel part of a community and don’t get lonely. The Counsellors in the hospital also work with the families of leprosy patients to help them understand the illness and help families deal with the illness and get over the stigma associated with leprosy so that families can stay together and care for each other.

As a lot of emphasis is placed on teaching at the hospital, it struck me what great teachers they have in Karigiri. The doctors, including the director of the hospital, the wonderful Dr Mannam Ebeneezer are fantastic teachers.  As well as attending to their jobs as doctors, they also teach the medical and nursing students. They are an inspiration and as we found out from first hand experience, can keep a class of students enthralled with the information and knowledge they share even in 45 degree heat!

I think everyone in the group would agree that our trip was well worthwhile, a life changing experience and a lesson to us all that material items are not important and it is the care and humanity shown to everyone that is important to us. God is most definitely at work in Karigiri and Vada and this can be seen in the acts of kindness and devotion shown to everyone who passes through the open doors of each hospital.  May God continue his work in this way and bless each and every person who comes into contact with the hospital for many years to come.