Mumbai-based gynaecologist, lactation consultant and author Dr Taru Jindal would have never imagined that life would take her to the hinterlands of Bihar, but she’s glad it did.
It was a project by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2014 that prompted her to leave the comforts of city life and venture into rural healthcare, and that’s how she formed a special bond with Bihar.
Shocks, surprises and support
After her MD, Taru left for Bihar on a three-month project in 2014. The mandate was to get doctors outside of Bihar into the district hospitals and train the gynaecologists, but when Taru reached the district hospital at Motihari, she was in for a rude shock.
“I was sent to train gynaecologists, and improve the rate of C-section deliveries as well as the quality of childbirths. When I landed in the hospital, I saw a sweeper delivering a woman’s baby with bare hands. Even to do stitches, she used a scissor that was kept in a dirty liquid, and she just put her hands inside to remove blood,” says Taru in an exclusive chat with MAKERS India. She recalls disturbing images of biomedical waste dumped outside the labour room, and people defecating right there.
The nurses didn’t know how to check the mother’s blood pressure and heart rate of babies, and day-in and day-out, babies were dying. There wasn’t even a single doctor in the labour room. Taru felt helpless and decided to leave, but her husband Dharav, who had also accompanied her, asked her to fulfil her commitment, and little did she know that three months would turn into two years.
“After some time, a few more soldiers appeared. A girl called Geetika Sharma from Delhi, an MBA in Hospital Administration, and some more people joined in, and gradually we were a team of 7-8 people who wanted to do something, but did not know what to do,” adds Taru. The team worked towards attitude building of the staff, and then moved on to building skills. Soon after, nurses and sweepers felt a sense of accomplishment when they saved babies or helped mothers during delivery.
“There was also a new district collector who had joined, and he was equally invested in turning things around. That was a time when a lot of things had happened including the reconstruction of the Operation Theatre and Labour Room - these things had not happened in decades and the wheel was moving. It was like after 100 years, a satyagraha had happened again,” says Taru, who also shared that Motihari Hospital also won the Kayakalp award in 2015, a year after this project began.
But before she embarked on this ‘life-changing mission’, the seeds of community healthcare had already been sown in her mind by her husband, Dharav Shah, who she met for the first time at the BJ Medical College, Pune. She then went on to pursue her MBBS from DY Patil Medical College Nerul, and later, did her MD from Sion Hospital.
“I was only 17 when I met Dharav in college. He would speak of things that I had never heard of. We were a part of several student organisations that would take us to a lot of service-based set-ups in Maharashtra, including Anandwan where Baba Amte worked and Gadchiroli where Dr Abhay and Rani Bang had done great work. They were really high-performing doctors who gave up city practice and settled in remote tribal areas to change the game in rural health care,” shares Taru.
She adds that Dharav would constantly ask her, “if it was right to crowd the nooks and crannies of Mumbai, where there are already super speciality hospitals, or venture into rural areas where healthcare is needed?” A combination of these factors led Taru to venture into unknown territory and bring about a transformative change.
Taru was brought up in an academically-oriented environment in Anushakti Nagar, on the outskirts of Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Mumbai. She describes it as an “ecological cocoon”, where she lived a life of comfort in lush environs, and was surrounded by erudite scientists and engineers. It was almost natural for most children to carve a career in either engineering or medicine.
Growing up, she was largely influenced by her parents, who inculcated in her values of perseverance and integrity, which are a part of her personality today. “I don’t think coming from an academic background predisposes you into a work of service. My mother was a teacher, and father a scientist. Both of them were very hardworking, and I had seen a lot of effort being put into things. That was the first thing that influenced me,” adds Taru.
Literature, too, played an important role in shaping her thought, especially in the first and second year of MBBS. She had picked Mahatma Gandhi's autobiography and was impressed by his capacity for reflection, growth, and service. That’s when she decided that his was the kind of life she wanted to live.
One person’s experiences could be another person’s reference points
After working in Motihari, she started work in a remote village in Bihar called Masarhi in Patna district in 2015. The primary problem was the lack of a primary healthcare centre and the area’s acute rate of malnutrition. Taru started a healthcare centre in the village and treated everything, right from leprosy to pneumonia.
She had to leave this project midway after she was diagnosed with a brain tumour. It was a difficult time for Taru, but she didn’t want her experiences to go to waste. That’s when she, on the insistence of her husband and brother, decided to write the book ‘A Doctor’s Experiments in Bihar’ published by Speaking Tiger, on her time in Bihar.
“I wanted my story to serve as a reference point for my generation. They only have people to get inspired from Mahatma Gandhi’s generation, it was very important for me to tell people that only one or two years of rural work can make such a huge difference. It’s like a relay race - I do my part, pass the baton, and then someone else takes over,” expresses Taru.
Her story is symbolic of women empowerment and an inspiration to those who want to make a difference in society. She urges women to embark on a journey of self-discovery and live their dreams. “Women have a nurturing quality in them, but we can also do other things. We can be mothers, but can also be torchbearers. Self-realisation and reflection is extremely important, while we are healthy, energetic and young,” says Taru.
Today, the Masarhi health centre (the second village she worked at after Motihari), has been converted to a 100 bed hospital and is also serving as an isolation centre for Covid-19 patients. Taru is in Delhi, fighting her battle with the tumour, and working as a lactation consultant. She is also engaged in spreading awareness on breastfeeding through her blogs and workshops. She also plans to organise a breastfeeding summit soon.
(Copyedited by Kanishk)