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Chhattisgarh, India


by Nonsense Girl nonsensegirl

I’d never heard of Mungeli till I got a call from Dr. Anil Henry inviting me to come and see the place for myself. Having been to Bissamcuttack and been thoroughly inspired by what they’ve done there, I was very excited about seeing another rural grassroots hospital. I was not disappointed. Anyone  reading this I hope you will be inspired to do something for the poor of your country. You are needed – the challenge awaits and the time is now.


Mungeli is a large village in the district of Bilaspur, Chattisgarh. Mungeli is about 100kms from Raipur, the capital of the state of Chattisgarh, and about 60kms from the state’s second biggest city Bilaspur. According to Wikipedia, Mungeli is a city… While I have great respect for the guys at Wikipedia I can assure you that Mungeli by no definition can be called a city. It is at best a big village. I travelled by overnight train from Visakhpatnam to Bilaspur.

Having seen Bissamcuttack in August 2012, and that being my only point of reference for a seriously rural hospital, I couldn’t help but make the comparisons.

On the drive there, Bissamcuttack (Orissa) is surrounded by the imposing virgin green Nyamgiri hills, long stretches of slick empty road surrounded by lush green Indian countryside alive with workers and animals. The drive to Mungeli is in stark contrast to that. It didn’t help that I was going a few months before the Indian heat gets to over 45 degrees C. The road to Mungeli is busy, narrow and littered with ramshackle habitation- people eeking out a living by the side of the road, migrant labourers living in squalid conditions, children and babies using the narrow state highway as a playground. It’s dusty and dry with long stretches of biscuit brown plains and even Anil will tell you that it’s not as beautiful as his home of Bissamcuttack where he grew up.

Dr. Anil Henry is the son of Nancy Lott and Dr. V.Henry who cradled the Christian Hospital at Bissamcuttack from the 1960s and which is now in Dr.Johnny Oomen’s capable hands (CMC batch of 1979-80).  Anil Henry and his wife Teresa studied at CMC (batch of 1984), the alma mater of my parents and where the DH and I grew up. Incidentally, Teresa is from Dhamptari which is the district south of Bilaspur. All these connections – Bissamcuttack, CMC Vellore, Mungeli cannot be ignored.

Having graduated from CMC and done his PG in Surgery from CMC Ludhiana, Anil set off with his wife (an anesthesiologist)  to the US. After four years he had become discontent with life’s predictable trajectory, stuck in a rut of commerce and compromise, filling his coffers but doing very little good, he returned to India on the same Christian mission (Global Ministries) that sent his mother to India in the 1960s, with a desire to help people who were really in need.

They were assigned to the Christian Hospital Mungeli and it’s been their home since 2003. Under the shade of old trees is a large sprawling house, with high ceilings and old fans suspended by long limbs, rooms and bathrooms all interconnected. I was greeted by four dogs, a pond full of koi, hot parathas, fluffy masala eggs and hot tea – what more can one ask for!

If you like dogs you are in for a treat. 2 pugs, Maggie the docile Alsatian and the alpha male Alsatian Max, who by the look of him charging out the pens I was ready for with my best Cesar Milan style greeting. But this graceful beauty with his leonine gait, light on his feet for his size, raced past me, sat on the floor of the verandah, scratched, then yawned, then took in the sun. I’ve heard that he and the pug have had a few scraps but he looked like a gentle beauty to me. I just wanted to bury my face in his furry mane…maybe next time.

The hospital and the quarters weren’t always so serene. When Anil and his wife got here during monsoon season, the roof of his house was non-existent, there were 3 naked bulbs for electricity, snakes and mosquitoes ruled and the hospital’s rooms were abandoned and shut down. The place was a mess, to put it nicely. But as I walked through the quiet sunlit corridors of the hospital, with beautiful gardens on either side, to the soundtrack of birds chirping in the central aviary and water gurgling in the pond, he had made it very difficult to imagine a hospital in ruins. It’s only through the pictures that I could fully comprehend just how much hard work had gone in to getting this place up to scratch.

They have done remarkable things here. The Christian Hospital Mungeli has 120 beds, they do 2500 surgeries a year, see 30,000 outpatients a year and they charge no doctor’s consultation fee. There are 100 support staff and only 5 doctors here. There are 3 operating theatres, ICUs, fully functioning labs, dental and eye specialists, laproscopic and endo-urology equipment, a CT scanner, ultrasound machine, x-rays and they are even building a cancer centre (using a Cobalt radiation machine). Once complete it’ll be the only other cancer centre in the state. They also have fully computerised medical records and PACs (filmless digital system). I admire the way they have integrated technology and modern thinking (computers, paperless, web clouds, solar heating) in to a rural setting for its functionality, not for show. The philosophy here seems to be that just because they are a rural hospital does not mean they cannot have the best facilities. Even rural India can have the best medical care.

In 2003, the main building had only one room functioning while the rest of it was closed off or abandoned. These rooms have been carefully renovated to open up the hospital, making it light and airy. The covered walkway now prevents patients going from the OT to the ward getting wet in the monsoon rain. Simple solutions to a niggling problem, but someone has to do it.

The female ward was renovated, beams and walls knocked down to make it light, airy and to accommodate more women. When Dr. Anil and his wife came to Mungeli there were hardly any beds and the mattresses were too far gone to be used. These beds are new and donated by a charity in the US.

What struck me was the care and thought that has gone in to the little details. Below is a picture of the “dharamshala”, a place where relatives can stay while the patient is admitted. It is a large bright open hall with fans and cubby holes you can lock to keep personal possessions in. There are facilities to cook, there is a dhaba where for Rs.5 one can get a meal. There is a also a shop where you can buy some basic essentials. There is no restriction on the number of relatives that a patient can have. According to Dr. Henry, having family around helps people get better, so why put restrictions on a good thing.

This is the only hospital for about 50 miles (80kms) around. Villagers come to the hospital with end stage disease. This is because they first visit the local shaman style “doctor” ie. the quack. Once his medicine eventually fails, the patient comes to get the “English Medicine” (as they would say in Tamil Nadu). However, as the success of treatments at the hospital has spread through the countryside the route that sick people make is first a quick stop to the quack and if he’s not at home they come straight to the hospital. If he is at home they are now more likely to take his medicine and still come to the hospital quite soon. The hospital sees a lot of mouth and cervix cancers, large tumours, TB, interstitial lung disease, organo-phosphorous poisoning, snake bites. I saw a girl who had had a one rupee coin shoved down her throat and she’d been living with it there for nine months – nasty things had happened as a result. Another man I saw walking around, admiring the birds in his hospital gown had come to the hospital a few weeks back pretty much dead. Now he was listening to the birds chirping.

The place is steeped in history. The hospital itself has been around since 1897. I urge you to read more about their fascinating history on their website. There are plaques all over the hospital marking its history, wards and rooms dedicated to or by someone who has nurtured this place. There are still buildings, although in bad state, from 1938 and 1942, which they are planning to demolish to house their nurses in better accommodation.

Apart from the hospital there is a school of nursing, training Chattisgarhi girls in a 3 and one half year nursing course recognised by the Nursing Council of India. They take in 30 girls per batch and have 6 nursing staff. The first batch graduates in 2014. Once trained the nurses will stay on for 2 years to work in the hospital in return for their highly subsidised education. There are a shortage of nurses and doctors, but Dr. Anil is keen on giving people opportunities to learn outside of Mungeli and funds many people to further their education, always in the hope that they will return to Mungeli but never enforcing it. Doctors come and go because once trained or their posting done, they return to the places they came from. There is only one doctor there who is actually a native of Mungeli and has a reason to stay. They are in the process of building a nurses hostel to accommodate all the students. This is currently the project most in need of time, money and attention. Dr. Anil is very clear that good accommodation and facilities must be provided to the staff who work and train here. We are working on making this happen. Here’s some of the old buildings that still being used by staff and students.

In 2004 the church asked Dr. Anil to take over the Rambo Memorial English Medium School as it was facing closure. Victor Rambo who the school is named after, worked in the Christian hospital at Mungeli from 1925 to around 1947 when he began dividing his time between the ophthalmology department in CMC, Vellore and Mungeli. The school, with much help from the hospital has lurched back on to its feet. Now it has 3 school buses that travel about 130kms to pick children up for school, admits 600 students from classes 1 to 10 and is building a new three storey complex to provide education for a total of 1000 children. The school is doing well – a new computer lab is being built and they have the only playground in Mungeli. The children look happy and are up to the antics of any school children any where in the world (when I was there a little boy was standing at the front of the class because he had been pulling down the shorts and trousers of his classmates!). There is still a need to build the capacities of the staff to advance the English medium education.

I had the brief yet enlightening opportunity to have lunch and a post-lunch chat over Starbucks coffee (Starbucks sachets, I should clarify) with the foreign volunteers from Denmark and the US. I was fascinated to know what motivated them to take time off from their courses to come here of all places. The girls from Denmark were very honest when they said that life in Denmark can be one of waste and luxury. From a very young age, elementary school in fact, she knew she wanted to travel and do good for people. Studying medicine is helping her fulfill this yearning. By their own admission, the foreign student volunteers say they are learning more than helping. But they are also adding to the community and care of the patients. The few months they have been there, they say has been life changing, inspirational and a place they will return to once fully qualified. It was their honesty, humility and desire to help people in need that I was most bowled over by. There is a wall in their accommodations filled with photographs of the people who have come to Mungeli and volunteered before them. Somehow I was not surprised to see only one or two Indian faces in a wall full of Western faces.

Something is happening to my generation. People like those of my parents’ generation who studied and stayed on at places like CMC and rural hospitals in India are fewer. People of my generation staying in India and doing good for the needy seem to be fewer. But I hope I am wrong.

I returned to India, not out of any need to do good here but for personal reasons of feeling rudderless. I used to think that not being a doctor put me at a disadvantage because I couldn’t help people in tangible ways. But in the past 9 months I have been exposed to real ways in which I too can help. So whatever the motivation and whatever your skills,  know that you are needed in this country. That despite the poverty and corruption, good work is being done, people are being helped. Choose to look at the small picture if you must. Opportunities abound at places like Mungeli. If you want to come and help do laundry for a few months, serve in the kitchens, be a doctor, a nurse, support staff or teach in the school, or even pick up a shovel and start the building works, all are welcome. There is plenty to do.

There is every reason to stay in Mungeli. All the modern creature comforts one really needs are present – water, electricity, air-conditioners, internet/wifi, a good roof, TV, excellent home cooked food, dogs and something that money cannot buy – great company, a community of like-minded people and a good dose of motivation and dedication to a good cause. These are the places and stories that make India Incredible to me.

If you or the company you work for are keen on CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) activities, please do get in touch so we can help raise money for Christian Hospital Mungeli.