In postcard pretty Kodaikanal, meet a doctor couple who treat the region’s poor

Villagers living near the popular tourist centre in Tamil Nadu lack access to healthcare and walk hours to the nearest town for check-ups.

ByPrutha Chakraborty

Published Mar 30, 2023 | 10:00 AMUpdatedMar 30, 2023 | 11:04 AM

Doctor couple Kodaikanal

When a doctor couple decided to celebrate their first wedding anniversary in beautiful Kodaikanal, they found an ugly truth lurking beneath the region’s captivating beauty: Healthcare for the poor was either missing or was limited.

The husband-wife team decided to make Kodaikanal their home, not because it was pretty, but because the deprived people of this hilly region in Tamil Nadu desperately needed healthcare.

“It is not as if Kodaikanal doesn’t have hospitals, but these are too few to cater to everyone,” says Dr Vivek Karthikeyan, who along with his wife Dr Sudipta Mahto, now runs a health facility for the poor in Vilpatti panchayat.

According to Dr Karthikeyan, when the poor people of the area need treatment at these hospitals and clinics, they are sent to facilities of another panchayat.

“They are shunted around,” he laments. “Local villagers have to walk for hours to the main Kodaikanal town even for routine check-ups,” he told South First.

“There are instances when the patient has died of a heart attack on the way.”

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Call of the needy

The decision to work among the poor didn’t happen overnight; the idea crystallised over time.

It was during training at the Christian Medical College in Vellore in 2011 that Dr Karthikeyan concluded that the sanitised environs of ICUs, where he was then posted, were not for him.

Around this time, a mentor suggested he join the family medicine unit there and Dr Karthikeyan was game.

“It provides primary care to urban slum dwellers as well as other underprivileged people in Vellore.”

When Dr Karthikeyan returned to his hometown Bengaluru after his Vellore stint, he already had his future plan clear in his mind. “I am needed in rural places and not in the cities,” he had decided.

Wife joins him

His wife — who was a year junior to him at the Bangalore Baptist Hospital, where both did their post-graduation in family medicine — was on board.

Doctor couple Kodaikanal

Dr Vivek Karthikeyan along with his wife Dr Sudipta Mahto. (Supplied)

“Luckily” for her, she says, she had worked in rural areas at a community hospital in Vellore. She also had worked for a few months in Anantapur in Andhra Pradesh, “where there is basically nothing”.

“People would come and wait the entire night to get their ailments treated the next morning,” Dr Mahto recalls.

“These experiences made me change my perspective about where I would be more useful.”

On their first wedding anniversary in February 2021, the doctor couple took a trip to Kodaikanal. But unlike other couples, this wasn’t just a celebration; rather, it was the beginning of a new chapter in their life.

“We fell in love with the place,” says Dr Karthikeyan. “But we had no family or relatives here. So to start practice here, we would have to give up a lot of things. Despite that, we never left!”

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Getting to know locals

Before setting up a clinic, the couple had to overcome two hurdles — getting to know the locals and finding funds to run the facility.

The couple with locals. (Supplied)

“For many months that followed, we would interact with local people at tea shops, bus stands, shops, etc,” says Dr Karthikeyan.

“We had to gain their trust, and so we conversed with them like tourists.”

A general opinion was that though there were facilities like government hospitals, age-old mission hospitals and corporate healthcare centres in the town, there was a huge lack of medical care in the remote parts of the Kodaikanal taluk.

Dr Karthikeyan explains the anomaly of the situation. “A long road joins Kodaikanal to Madurai city. Madurai is where the best medical facilities are available, but in the remote parts of Kodaikanal, there is barely anything.”

‘Doctors failed to consider hardships’

On some occasions, local patients visiting hospitals in Kodaikanal are asked to get scans and tests done for diagnosis. Some of these patients are battling long-term diseases and require continuity of care.

“But some doctors fail to understand this. They need to consider where these locals come from, how far they have travelled and how sensitively their case needs to be handled. Instead, they are told to get multiple tests done, which very often, they are unable to do mainly because of the distance.”

Dr Vivek Karthikeyan and Dr Sudipta Mahto wanted to bridge this gap, and thus began their mission to provide medical care to the poor.

So in March 2022, the doctor couple opened their first clinic, called Sirumalai Health Centre in Vilpatti panchayat’s Naidupuram area.

By November, they had opened another centre in Perumalmalai, which has 15-odd villages and falls under Adukkam panchayat.

“While I handle the Naidupuram centre, my husband looks after patients at Perumalmalai,” Dr Mahto told South First.

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Building trust, funds

And how did they manage to get sceptical patients to walk into their clinics?

Dr Mahto says the idea of them opening a clinic in the area would be slipped in during initial conversations with the local people.

Dr Sudipta Mahto treating a patient. (Supplied)

“They were doubtful at first, but then when they saw we were working hard for their benefit, they began to believe us, and more and more people started to drop by.”

Their initiative is self-funded, which meant that the couple had to work extra hard to fulfil their dreams.

“My husband used up all the money he had saved from his stint in Vellore to set up the first clinic,” Dr Mahto explains.

“He told me that I would have to financially support him for the first six months till the clinic gets enough patient footfalls.”

And so, Dr Mahto took a job in a corporate hospital in January 2022 in Kodaikanal. When they had secured enough funds through her savings, Dr Mahto quit her job and joined Sirumalai Health Centre full-time in September.

“Until then, I worked at Sirumalai only on Sundays,” she says.

The husband-wife team has completed a year since they started on their new journey and concede “there is much more left to do”.

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At the grassroots

Each day is dedicated to treating one ailment, with patients informed in advance. People queue up outside the centre on the day their illness is scheduled for. This has streamlined the process of patient management; helping the couple are four to five employees.

“Sometimes when we find out patients are incapable of getting scans or tests done or even pay the basic consultation cost, we give them medicines free of cost or treat them without expecting them to pay us,” Dr Vivek Karthikeyan says.

“We try to handle each case seriously and with kindness.”

The experience of Selvarani, 50, being treated for rheumatoid arthritis at the Sirumalai Health Centre is testimony to that.

Doctor couple Kodaikanal

Sirumalai Health Centre. (Supplied)

Despite hailing from a well-to-do family from Vilpatti panchayat, she did not receive proper treatment and suffered for many years. The reason: Lack of access to medical care.

“So for the past 13 years, she was unable to leave her bed, step outside her home and meet people,” says Dr Vivek Karthikeyan.

“Initially, she went to several hospitals but was told that they could not cure her condition. When she came to me, I took her case as a priority and treated her immediately.”

Today, when the clinic announces it would cater to patients suffering from arthritis, she is the first to land outside the centre.

“She is much better than before,” Dr Sudipta Mahto says. “We hope to continue making this difference in people’s lives.”