11 February 2002, Mananthavady, North Kerala
On February 11 the Mananthavady Hospital Development Society came to Amma to seek Her assistance for the District Government Hospital. The hospital serves the Wayanad District of North Kerala, an extremely impoverished area.
This district is home to a large population of tribal people who have lost their traditional livelihoods. Agriculture is the mainstay of the area, but it has been hard hit by the import quotas cited by the GAT Treaty. For example, the wholesale price of coffee has dropped from 60 rupees to 9 rupees, throwing many agricultural workers into unemployment.
The hospital services are free aside from a one rupee charge for an admission ticket. Half the patients are tribal people who are too poor to pay even that one rupee, so the fee is waived for them.
The hospital was designed to serve 274 inpatients, but on the day of the visit, 475 patients had been admitted. Two to three patients must share a bed, including mothers who have just delivered a baby. The hospital only has money to give one meal a day, but the tribal people are accustomed to this. Despite the overcrowding and limited food, the patients try to stay as long as possible to benefit from that one free meal. When they return to their villages they will again have to scavenge for food. Starvation is a serious threat in the world of the tribals and malnutrition is usual.
Amma was very moved to hear the plight of the hospital and the next day She asked the Westerners on the North India Tour to visit it. A group of 35 people from several counties went to the hospital bringing sweets, biscuits and Amma photos to give to the patients.
The superintendent of the hospital, a very sincere, big hearted and hard working man, led the tour. Despite the severe overcrowding and limited equipment, the hospital was clean and obviously well run. The simple cement rooms with about 50 beds to a room seemed more like a village than a hospital. Indeed, there were two to three patients to a bed along with the family members who accompanied them. The family members slept on mats on the floor of the room.
The group visited the male and female wards, the kitchen and the maternity units. There were accident victims, stroke and cardiac patients. Skin diseases and malnutrition were rampant. There were Hindu, Muslim and Christian patients. A catholic sister was visiting her father and wanted a picture of Amma. A visiting devotee gave her one. Sometimes a baby was put in the hands of a visiting devotee by a proud grandmother. The tribal patients were obvious from their clothes and hairstyles. They looked at us with interest and eagerly accepted our modest gifts. The staff translated simple questions, but the clearest communication was through a sympathetic look and clasp of hands.
Many of the Westerners were clearly shaken by what they had seen and heard. Their eyes were wet with tears. It was a humbling experience for many, a reminder of how fortunate they were. Some felt frustrated not to be able to give more to the patients. But indeed, just the presence of people who showed interest and compassion for their plight was very meaningful to the patients and their relatives.
In the West, people are conditioned to show love through giving of material things, but an open heart is often the most meaningful gift. In return, these destitute people give us a chance to open our hearts. For example, students at a nearby college, hearing of the plight of the patients, donate their lunch once a week and fast themselves.
Plans are underway for a relationship between the hospital and AIMS. The government hospital is a first referral hospital. It offers only simple surgery, maternity and cardiac care. AIMS, with its advanced diagnostic facilities and operating units, will be able to give help to these patents that would be otherwise not available. Amma also has plans to open a small hospital about forty kilometers away and to operate mobile medical units in remote areas. This hospital and the mobile units will take a little burden from the district hospital.
The group returned for last evening program of the Mananthavady Brahmasthanam. The golden slanting light of the setting sun stroked the groves of coconut palms and banana plants. The next morning we would leave for Mysore, the next stop on the tour. However, it will be a long time before we can forget the tragic conditions and the sweet smiles of the simple tribal people we had met.