One figure has been at the centre of this dramatic turnaround: Dr Maria Aschhoff, 72, a German doctor who has been running the St Thomas Hospital and Leprosy Centre at Chetput since 1960. It was a long, circuitous route that brought her to this forsaken pocket of the world. She grew up with images of missions to New Guinea, and Aschhoff confides that as a young girl she often dreamt about going there-even in the face of opposition from mortified parents. The dream was in gestation as she worked for a medicine degree. Eventually her parents relented and in '57 she joined the Medical Mission Institute of Wuerzburg, an organisation engaged in sending doctors to developing countries. Deputed to go to Africa, she was close to packing her bags when Dr F. Hemerijckx, founder of the Leprosy Centre at Polambakkam, Tamil Nadu, chanced to visit Wuerzburg. He promptly invited Dr Aschhoff to come to India, as there was a dearth of doctors to care for leprosy patients. She had little knowledge of leprosy work and treatment but, sensing that it represented a gaping hole in health care, she took it on. Since leprosy was absent in Germany, she underwent training in Spain in preparation for coming to India.
May 1960 saw her take up residence in Chetput at Vanniar street with Sisters Gertrud and Sister Maria Mueller. Physiotherapy technician K.N. Soundararaja soon joined the trio and they lost no time in launching the project. On June 1, 1960, a small clinic was opened in an old school building-the board outside read 'German Leprosy Centre'. A temporary dispensary was also set up and the team forayed out into the villages. The first expansion saw three roadside clinics at Kolappular, Valanthy and Devikapuram. Deciding to go to the patients rather than wait for them, they went from area to area counselling people about leprosy and larger issues of health. By the end of the year the staff grew to 12, the roadside clinics to 13, and the number of patients registered for treatment to 2,380. "Within the first year, we would have started treating about 35,000 patients," says Dr Aschhoff.
Caring for leprosy victims was Aschhoff's sole priority, but popular pressure began pulling her in the direction of general medical care as well. The many additions to the clinic included a general opd as well as fully equipped research lab in '75. A parallel unit now manufactures special footwear for leprosy patients. From being only a leprosy centre, the clinic came to be rechristened St Thomas Hospital and Leprosy Centre. Today, it also functions as a tb sub-centre. With 230 beds, 14 doctors and 186 other staff members, which includes para-medics, the hospital is the best health care available to people in the Vandavasi area covering more than 450 villages and about a score of towns.
The entire district is grateful to this German. The contrast to the Bisleri-clutching foreigners who visit the nearby Sengi fort could not be greater. Says K. Mudaliar, a leprosy patient: "If it were not for Doctor Amma, I would've been dead and gone a long time ago.In this hospital, we feel human and Doctor Amma treats me like a member of the family." According to Valli, another inmate, India is blessed to have people like Dr Aschhoff. "I think all these foreign doctors and nurses are like Mother Teresa. God has cursed us with this disease, but also sends us these kind people. They're our true relatives."
Dr Aschhoff shuns accolades: "It was a collective effort". Does she plan a return to her native place? "I came here 40 years ago, now this is my native place. I am part of these people. The German connection helps whenever I need resources. Otherwise, I do not even think that I am a German," she declares in Tamil.