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Healing the Forgotten

A mobile clinic restores health and provides hope in India

text by Anubha George with photographs by Meenakshi Soman

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Many proper names in the article are given with initials, which is a common practice in Tamil Nadu.

In a picturesque village in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, L. Crystal lives in a sizable house surrounded by lush greenery. She shares it with her husband, N. Palmani, and daughter P. Sreeja. The house, however, is filthy — to the extent that snakes have laid eggs within its walls.

Palmani’s diabetes is out of control. Inadequate access to health care has left him bedridden; he has not visited a doctor in months. He lies in bed in a room flooded with rainwater; he and his wife do not have the money to fix the leak. Sreeja has special needs, limiting the ways she can contribute to the household. Crystal wears a torn sari.

Once upon a time, theirs was the most prosperous household in the village, which lies in the district of Kanyakumari, along the coast at the southernmost tip of India. Crystal worked as a teacher. But their circumstances changed amid mounting health issues and an investment gone wrong, setting off a downward spiral into poverty.

Crystal and her husband have two other children — a son and a daughter — now estranged.

But the family has visitors every week. The Rev. Saji Elambasseril and his team from the Kanya Kumari Social Service Society (K.K.S.S.S.) run a mobile clinic that provides palliative care for those who have nowhere to go or no one to turn to for help.

One morning, the Rev. Vinu D. Joseph, Sister Savari Arul, volunteers Suja Rani and G. Sudha, and driver J.M. Praveen visit the family — one of many under their care. They chat with Crystal, Sreeja and Palmani. Sister Savari checks Palmani’s blood pressure and sugar levels. Father Joseph leads a prayer session. It feels like a normal day.

In a variety of ways, the team strives to bring this sense of normalcy, care and dignity to its clientele.

“We look forward to the visit and prayer,” Crystal says. “It gives me hope.”

Founded in 1972, the K.K.S.S.S. is the social services arm of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Eparchy of Thuckalay, and focuses on addressing the needs of the poor and the marginalized communities in the Tamil district of Kanyakumari.

“K.K.S.S.S. does things like skill development training, computer classes, child care centers and nursery schools and tree plantation programs,” says Father Elambasseril, who has directed the society for the last five years.

In 2016, the society began a mobile clinic to make health care available to poor and underserved communities in the eparchy. These consist principally of the Adivasi, or indigenous communities, and the Dalits, who occupy the lowest rung of India’s historical and technically illegal caste system.

“Their needs are quite specific,” Father Elambasseril says. “They live in isolated places and see others as outsiders,” he says, adding that the society has enlisted the aid of men and women among the various communities as volunteers and coordinators, who alert program leaders when someone needs their help.

The mobile medical team, called the Mother Teresa Palliative Care Unit, visits some 300 families who receive assistance from K.K.S.S.S.

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