Among those chosen for the Padma Shri awards this year is Dr Ravi Kannan, who left behind his life in Chennai to help cancer patients in the Northeast, and now runs the Cachar Cancer Hospital in Barak Valley, Assam.
The Barak Valley is among the most deprived areas in the country in terms of medical facilities. Dr Kannan, who worked as a surgeon in Adyar Cancer institute, Chennai, had visited Assam a few times as guest surgeon and motivator. The doctor felt he was needed more here, and in 2007, decided to make the move.
His wife, Seeta Kannan, who worked with the United States India Educational Foundation, was concerned initially. They had a daughter in Class 5, and Assam was often in news for militancy and blasts. Seeta decided to visit the state, and once here, was convinced the doctor’s services were required.
Speaking to indianexpress.com, Dr Kannan said, “The first challenge we faced was people’s unwillingness to get expensive treatment for an ailment that seems incurable. I want to tell each and every patient that cancer is curable, unlike say diabetes. I don’t want to see a single person dying in indignity because of cancer. This part of the country is more prone to cancer because of people’s lifestyle, with widespread consumption of tobacco, betel nuts and alcohol. Also, there isn’t much awareness about the ailment. Once they are diagnosed with it, people feel helpless and some even decide to hide it.”
They started small. When Dr Kannan arrived here, Barak Valley had a small cancer society named Cachar Cancer Hospital Society, which was facing multiple challenges, including a severe financial crunch, lack of infrastructure and of specialist doctors. Today, the hospital provides treatment to more than 20,000 patients every year, generates employment for their attendants, and provides free food to the patients with low-cost stay for their family members.
When the Padma Shri awards were announced, Professor Joydeep Biswas, a cancer survivor, wrote on his Facebook wall: “Though I have never seen God, I know God lives in Cachar Cancer Hospital.”
Dr Kannan said the award was for the “thousands of people who came forward and made this institute a reality”.
“Such a recognition is definitely an encouragement, but our goal is to convince each and every cancer patient to get treatment. It takes a lot of money and time for a patient to get cured. When we started, we managed to convince some people to seek treatment. But with a lack of basic facilities, we started losing them. We have seen attendants eating puffed rice with green chilli and sleeping on the floor. We did not have enough resources to give them lodging facilities. As a result, they stopped coming back.”
Dr Kannan described an incident which made it that much clearer to them that people couldn’t get treatment unless provided with a support structure.
“A cancer patient cannot be cured with a single visit, they have to come again and again. Once a patient came, paid Rs 5,000 for treatment, but never came back for follow-ups. Later, we found that he had sold his son to a rich man for those Rs 5,000. It was a horrific experience. We somehow saved the child, but decided to change this scenario. We started providing work to the attendants at our hospital. Several groups from the locality started helping us, some help came from the government too,” said Dr Kannan.
“We started employing the patients’ attendants at the hospital. We take Rs 500 from a patient for tests and then the treatment is free for lifetime. These small changes increase the number of follow-ups. Today, more than 70 per cent cases are being treated completely. The treatment quality is equal to any standard cancer institute in the country. We believe providing improper treatment is cruelty,” the doctor said.
Dr Kannan said he believes treatment should be available in every locality, not too far from the patients. Thus, along with other doctors, he started satellite clinics in Karimganj, Hailakandi and Dima Hasao districts.
Today, the follow-up ratio of Cachar Cancer Hospital is more than 90 per cent. The hospital got its first radiation unit in 2006 and the first qualified nurse came on board in 2008. With Dr Kannan’s supervision, the hospital saw its first microvascular surgery for a cancer patient in 2012, a first for the Northeast.
Dr Kannan’s father was an Air Force personnel who received a Vishisht Seva Medal for his service. His mother Indumati Kannan said: “My husband and I wanted our son to be a doctor so he could serve common people. He was always a humble child, dedicated to his work. He is not over-excited with the recognition, rather he is hopeful that with this, he can help more people.”
Seeta Kannan said the award was a recognition of a strong, dedicated team’s work.
“We live in a country which is vast, yet connected. When we decided to come here, we did not know the language properly. Today, we have so many people taking care of us. My daughter has got an education of the highest quality and we are happy serving so many people through this cancer research centre. This award is not for a single person, it is the recognition of a strong dedicated team’s decade-long work,” she said.
The Kannan family is a pet lover and they have several domestic animals and birds in their house. They have named their dog Hiro, a Japanese word which means courage.
The Assam government has extended its support to Cachar Cancer Hospital several times. There has been a supply of medicines and funds have been allotted for infrastructure development. The hospital’s management committee believes that with the Padma Shri award to Dr Kannan, more government support will materialise.
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