Father Tomy Knows Best: Healing with love

Panchgani: For most people, Panchgani perhaps is all about a picturesque getaway; for others, good residential schools; and for still others, fresh, red, shining strawberries. But at Bel-Air Hospital, located in the heart of this scenic town, red takes on a different hue: It signifies the colour of blood and HIV.

Yet, once in this place, life with HIV no longer appears to be bleak.

The love, care and acceptance at Bel-Air more than prepare patients to live with HIV. Many who come to this hospital looking for a peaceful death find themselves on a miraculous road to recovery with the care that they are provided here.

"Look at this Gorakh. It is a miracle that he survived. His CD4 count was five when he was admitted. But tomorrow he is all set to go home," says Dr. Bhavna Lonkar, a doctor at Bel-Air. Gorakh is not the only one to have shown such recovery from a point where most people go into AIDS- related illnesses and eventually death.


"It is the way patients are treated here," says Father Tomy, a Catholic priest, who set up this centre a few years ago. While anti retroviral drugs are available, social attitudes have not changed all that much, he says. There is acute social stigma. Even medical practitioners are hesitant about treating people with HIV, he says.

This hospital, initially started in the early 20th century for tuberculosis patients by the Indian Red Cross Society, was compelled to start the first HIV ward when a large number of people with tuberculosis started to test positive for HIV. Today, nestled in scenic surroundings, it is an example of the finest care for people living with HIV in India.

A few years ago, a patient came to this hospital with multiple fractures. He had been refused treatment at all the other medical centres as he was HIV positive," says Father Tomy as he narrates story after story of how he changed mentalities within Bel-Air. The Father decided that the Red Cross Society should not refuse treatment to this patient. But it was a challenge to convince the staff. Eventually, he succeeded.

After that the hospital and its staff were always ready to handle the most complex cases. Since 1995 close to 4,265 people with HIV have received treatment at Bel-Air.

Patients are provided free food, accommodation and treatment. But they are asked to deposit Rs 3,000 for laboratory tests. There is one firm rule though: each patient must be accompanied by a family member.

"This ensures that the family stays around to care for those with HIV," says the Father.

At Bel-Air, efforts are made to counsel relatives of patients. This helps in not just providing support but also ensures follow up. The first step towards reducing stigma begins with the environment Father Tomy has created within the premises. Staff members and relatives get food from a common mess.

Patients too can be seen enjoying their meals outside the ward in the lush green surroundings with their relatives. President APJ Abdul Kalam also visited the hospital in 2003. This helped transform not just the attitude of the government but also of the people living here. The hospital attracts people from all over Maharashtra as well as neighbouring Karnataka.

Its services go beyond those provided at a hospital. Besides the team of 150 medical practitioners, a team of social workers are engaged in regular counseling; a team of outreach workers follow up with the patients at the village level; and a dietician ensures that patients get a high protein diet.

Various social programmes and cultural activities are designed to develop positive energies in these patients. A cadre of volunteers of positive people, whose lives have been transformed by this hospital, works towards transforming the lives of others.

The hospital has created a legal cell to help distressed widows and those who have been denied their rights, "They are so poor that they cannot even think about asking for their rights. The issue of survival is more important for them," says Father Tomy.

Bel-Air is now involved in formulating training programmes for the management of HIV/AIDS. As a chairperson of National AIDS Control Societies Technical Support Group, Father Tomy would like to bring an Indian perspective to the present approach.

"Though there are universal principles in HIV/AIDS treatment formulated by World Health Organisation, they are formulated with a western perspective. The socio-sexual behavior of the Indian people is different. So, based on the experience of the decade in treatment of HIV infected and affected, Bel- Air is coming up with an integrated model of this treatment," says Father Tomy.

Along with regular short term training workshops for medical practitioners, he has launched Bel-Air Nursing College with a four-year course, accredited by the Maharashtra Health University and affiliated with the University of Chicago, the only nursing course in the country with the emphasis on HIV/AIDS treatment.

Father Tomy came across this hospital as a tourist. As a human being he took on the challenge of rebuilding it. Now, it is society’s turn to be humane towards the issues raised by this hospital.

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