One call awayPhoto credit: Shweta Vitta
In the scorching heat, Nagaratna, Outreach worker with SHOPS Project walks at least 3-4 kilometres every day, visiting every house in the slum. She knows about everyone residing in the area. From their nature to their work, personal problems and health complications, she’s aware of them all. As she enters each house, her tiny frame, hurried nature yet concerned eyes quickly sift through every family member and once she’s sure she isn’t seeing any symptoms of TB in anyone, she makes her way to the next house. Everywhere in Ilkal town in Bagalkot district, she’s welcomed with a warm smile, some coffee and snacks.
But Nagaratna recalls how difficult the journey has been. She says, “Earlier, it was a challenge to get people to come together for community meetings and making them explain what TB is all about. If I would see symptoms in someone, they would disagree and refuse to come to the hospital. But slowly, I made my way. From doing small talk to being concerned about their personal troubles, I built a rapport with the families and then people started opening up. They started respecting my job and seeing TB as a social stigma reduced.”
Hailing from a middle-class family, Nagaratna joined this profession as she found it ‘extremely challenging and was responsible for the lives of people’. Initially when she started, she had a target to identify at least 20-25 cases every month. She was worried but felt there would be some rationale to the number and quickly strategized her visits. She says, “On one hand, I understood the categories of workers such as weavers, limestone workers, factory workers etc. and on the other hand I developed relationships with key influencers; government and private doctors, community leaders etc. Both these helped me a lot. If I would identify a case, I would take them to the doctor and start their treatment. On the other side, the doctors would also refer cases to me.”
Over the last one year, she has seen success and failure. She has built trust not only amidst the community members but also in her network of doctors. She recalls one such private doctor, Dr. Kulkarni and says, “He’s extremely confident that if I have referred a case then it needs to be looked in to. Despite having a medical degree, he regards my decisions/suspicions.” Ask her which patient is the closest to her, she says, “A woman named Geetha, who was in such a bad situation that her family had even prepared for her cremation. I brought her back to life.”
Today, after a year-long experience on the field, Nagaratna has become a better individual. She has learnt the realities of the community and feels she is better equipped to tackle TB on all fronts. She says, “The project has reached a very crucial stage; we have identified patients and convinced them to undergo treatment. Some have finished, many haven’t. It’s sad that the project is coming to an end. Perhaps, another year would have been great. But I won’t give up. Even if the project ends, my learnings won’t. I will continue to do my bit in whatever capacity I can.”
It’s almost 9 pm when Nagaratna stops talking about her journey and her phone suddenly rings. On the other side, a frantic patient is asking her multiple questions pertaining to the medicine’s side-effects. She simply smiles and says, “This is normal. The phone keeps ringing until midnight. But the project has taught me to value people’s problems.”