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Project Hope/ George Iype
It was a telephone call from a jail superintendent in 1996 that deeply touched Bishop Joseph Kundukulam.
Venu Gopalan, a convict in a murder case, was admitted to the Thrissur Medical College with a mysterious bed-ridden disease. Doctors then pronounced his illness: Gopalan was HIV positive.
Soon doctors refused to treat him; nurses resigned when told to give him food; other patients in the ward immediately got themselves discharged. While two police constables stood outside the ward, Gopalan was starving to death. Frightened, the jail superintendent rang up Bishop Joseph: "Your Grace, one of our convicts is dying in the medical college. Can you help me somehow?"
The bishop knew there was only one person in the Thrissur diocese could help the convict, the jail officer and the medical college:
Father Varghese Palathingal.
He soon despatched the young priest to the hospital. "What I saw in the hospital was the most horrible sight. A young man was sitting in the corner of a ward crying for water and food," recollects the priest.
Father Varghese took a bucket of water, bathed and wiped his body, but found that Gopalan could not eat or drink because there were wounds in his mouth. The priest then took care of the convict for the next five days as baffled policemen, doctors and nurses looked on.
Gopalan began walking after a week and was taken back to the jail. The incident, however, left Father Varghese and Bishop Kundukulam numb. It also sparked in them a desire to set up a hospice for AIDS patients.
When a Goan lady landed in Kerala with AIDS, a hospital instructed her to meet Father Varghese. He put her in a convent, but the local people -- who the priest says are still obsessed with the superstitious fear about AIDS -- objected.
"I wanted to do something for AIDS sufferers because they were being treated like dogs by the society," says Father Varghese.
Soon, Bishop Joseph and Father Varghese went to Delhi in connection with a social welfare project implemented by the Thrissur archdiocese. There they met an additional secretary in the National AIDS Control Organisation. When they told the bureaucrat that the archdiocese wanted to start a hospice for terminally ill patients, he responded positively, and asked them to submit a project report.
Subsequently NACO approved the project upon one condition -- the archdiocese had to acquire the land and construct the centre while NACO would provide a recurring grant to run the hospice. Bishop Joseph and Father Varghese went to some African countries to study how AIDS patients were treated there.
The bishop then approved the purchase of 10 acres of picturesque land near the Thrissur Medical College for Rs 60 lakh. However, half way through the project -- in April 1998 -- Bishop Joseph died.
"We inaugurated the centre on April 26, 1999, on his first death anniversary," says Father Varghese.
The first AIDS patient was admitted at the centre on June 8, 1999. In the last 15 months, 49 full-blown AIDS patients -- 34 Hindus, 9 Christians and 6 Muslims -- from different states have been admitted in the hospice. 41 males and eight females. While 23 patients have died in the hospice, eight were discharged after they regained health.
Currently the hospice treats 18 AIDS carriers -- 14 males and four females.
A young couple -- Prem Kumar and Lakshmi -- waiting for death in the hospice do not mind revealing their names. Lakshmi, 23, tall and beautiful, was a Muslim before she converted to Hinduism to marry her college lover, Prem Kumar, 32. Their families opposed the marriage, but they married two years ago.
Soon after the marriage, Kumar fell seriously ill and was diagnosed as a HIV positive. "I knew I was an HIV carrier. But I wanted to marry Lakshmi because I loved her so much. I also did not know that I will die soon," he says.
Kumar contracted the disease during sexual escapades at college. The news of her life-mate inflicted with the dreaded disease broke Lakshmi's heart.
"I felt cheated by Prem. But I did not hate him because I knew he married me because of genuine love. My blood test was taken. I had also contracted the disease. We were thrown out of our family. We then wanted to die," recollects Lakshmi.
Discarded by their families and rejected by society, Lakshmi and Prem Kumar decided to go to a nearby railway track to end their lives. They happened to read about the Mar Kundukulam Rehabilitation Centre that very day. The next day they went to the centre and met Father Varghese. Prem was nearly dying and was admitted immediately.
"We did not want to admit Lakshmi because the hospice is meant only for terminally-ill AIDS patients," says Father Varghese. But Lakshmi cried and pleaded: "I will look after my husband. I want to die with him." So Father Varghese finally admitted Lakshmi too. The priest felt she would have committed suicide otherwise.
Today, Lakshmi is healthy and active. She serves as a member of the hospice staff not only to her husband, but for all other AIDS patients. "This is our last resort. My husband will die any day. I will follow him may be after some years. But we are happy that we are dying peacefully. Otherwise, we would have committed suicide as mental wrecks," she adds.
Father Varghese, now executive director of the centre, says AIDS patients like Lakshmi and Prem Kumar reach the hospice as mental wrecks. "Most of them have attempted suicide. But after reaching the hospice, we find all of them yearn for life. They live happily though death awaits them. Our aim and motto is to give them a respectful and peaceful death."
Alice, 45, (not her original name) a widow, came to the hospice searching for this peace and respect. "My husband died seven years ago. I have two college-going sons. But they nearly beat me to death when they came to know that I was an AIDS carrier," she laments.
Hailing from a respected middle-class Christian family in Kollam, Alice says she contracted the disease through blood transfusion. "I have never engaged in any extramarital activities. What pained me was not the reality that I was an AIDS patient -- but when my sons suspected me of having sexual affairs with outsiders. I was heartbroken," she cries.
After being admitted to the Kundukulam hospice, Alice has pledged not to return home. "I will not see my sons any more. I will die here peacefully without harming my sons's reputation."
To ensure that her mental agony does not lead her to madness, AIDS patients like her undergo prayer therapies in the hospice.
"Prayer therapy heals the mind and refreshes the patients. We read the Bible and other religious books for them. We play music and teach them to meditate and respect themselves. It helps them overcome their mental trauma," says Sister Mary, one of the ten nurses -- most of whom belong to the congregation of Nirmaladasikal -- who look after the patients.
"The prayer therapy has infused life into them. They want to live here because they know society hates them," she adds.
The centre now has three doctors and ten nurses. NACO provides a monthly grant of Rs 1,600 per AIDS patient for food and medicine.
Father Varghese recently started a special centre near the hospice for family counseling because family members refuse to accept the bodies of AIDS patients who die in the hospice. "Family counseling is very important. Family members throw out AIDS patients out of superstitious fears," says the priest. "Now we are fighting to eradicate the social stigma and prejudice attached to the disease."
But family counselling has not been of much help. These days Father Varghese and the nuns bury the dead in a nearby public cemetery.
Therefore, the centre has launched a series of awareness programmes in Kerala to educate people on AIDS. "When we started the hospice here, local people opposed the project. They did not want an AIDS hospital coming to the village. Many of them told me they did not want to be known as living in an AIDS colony," he says. But Father Varghese conducted a series of public meetings in the area and the local agitation subsided.
As he winds up talking about the AIDS project, the phone rings. A Muslim youth named Ashraf from the hilly district of Mananthavady is on the phone. "I have AIDS. One of my legs has been amputated. Can I get admission there?" he asks. Father Varghese tells him to come over with an HIV positive certificate. "Can I bring my wife and little son?" Ashraf pleads.
These days, Father Varghese is in a quandary. It is not the mental and physical trauma of the AIDS patients that is troubling him. It is the sufferings of innocents like the wives and children that torments him.
"Wives and children are contracting AIDS. In the next few years, thousands of innocents will be suffering from AIDS in India," he points out.
Almost every day, Father Varghese receives phone calls from full-blown AIDS patients, HIV cases and positives. But the Kundukulam Centre can accommodate only 40 AIDS patients at a time. The Thrissur archdiocese plans to build a complex with facilities to admit hundreds of patients.
The centre is trying to raise funds -- nearly Rs 20 million -- to construct the building. Fervently hoping they can raise the amount with the help of those who feel for this cause.
Father Varghese Palathingal can be contacted at:
Design: Lynette Menezes
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