by Sarah K. 

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itting behind the desk in her hospital office, Dr. Vandana points to a faded picture of a mousy girl. The girl's clothes are slightly too big; they seem to swallow her, like the timidity clinging to her features.

“No one wanted to be my friend,” Vandana recalls, laughing ruefully. She regularly failed exams and often found herself on the bench in class reserved for the worst performing students, which didn’t help her shyness. When her parents announced to relatives or neighbors their plans to make her a doctor, Vandana would look for a place to hide.

It’s hard to find a trace of that girl as Vandana, now actually a doctor, bustles down one of the hospital's outdoor corridors, her arms full of papers. She’s moving so quickly that her green dupatta (long scarf) and dark shoulder-length hair flutter out behind her in the morning breeze. It looks like she’s not quite making contact with the ground.

Patients wait to be seen by doctors and family members wait for news of their loved ones in the hospital courtyard - Photo by Brian.

Patients wait to be seen by doctors and family members wait for news of their loved ones in the hospital courtyard - Photo by Brian.

Vandana registers the face of everyone she passes along the way. Each person in the hospital community is rushing to their assigned tasks for the day. Vandana is catching up with neighbors as she goes. She stops to ask someone about their sick relative and then, in a few more paces she delightedly trades jokes with two children who live across the compound, on their way to school. In between, she’s hurrying to make up the time to get to her office before her first meeting of the day.

A staff member stops her, hoping she can solve a problem in one of the projects. “Okay,” Vandana slows down, pursing her lips and humming slightly for a second. Suddenly her eyes light up with an idea and she answers, “What you can do is…” and rattles off a solution. She’s moving again, still listening carefully, as the person keeps pace to ask a few more clarifying questions before veering off to implement the solution. Vandana continues on to her office, settling in behind her desk just as several team leaders knock on her door.

Vandana's office is rarely quiet, as staff members, project managers, and community members bustle in out and with questions, problems, and a desire to connect with her - Photo courtesy of Dr. Vandana. 

Vandana oversees the community health projects of a Christian hospital run by a nation-wide organization, partners of SIM. In her five-year tenure, she’s tripled the number of projects, from three to nine, and now manages a staff grown to fifty people.

The hospital and projects are located in one of the poorest states in India, a place synonymous with impossible problems and communities. Corruption, child marriage, high rates of illiteracy, and poverty are all characteristic of this state. People from here prefer to leave; most of the population goes elsewhere to find work. People from outside the state avoid it altogether, if they can.

One of the hospital's community health projects are women's Self Help Groups, which empower women to save their own money and use it to start businesses that provide their families with income. Many, like this woman, Geeta, choose to buy cattle. 

One of the hospital's community health projects are women's Self Help Groups, which empower women to save their own money and use it to start businesses that provide their families with income. Many, like this woman, Geeta, choose to buy cattle. 

Vandana planned on avoiding it too. She became a believer as a medical student in 1997. She also became interested working at a Christian hospital. A traveling doctor routinely shared about the work of a Christian association he worked with. Nation-wide, medical personnel are unevenly distributed, with doctors preferring to stay in urban areas where the pay and hours are better. That means rural hospitals, if they exist at all, are chronically understaffed and under-resourced.

Vandana hung a map of India on her wall and marked all of the association’s hospital locations. Each association hospital is located in a rural community that otherwise wouldn’t have access to medical care As Vandana began praying for all of the locations, her eyes “always fell on R” – a small town in the infamous state.

“I wondered why,” she laughs. “Because I was motivated to join [a Christian hospital], but not motivated enough to go to there!”

So when Vandana joined the organization, she joined a hospital further south. Three months into the position, however, the hospital leaders decided she needed extra surgical training. Vandana was surprised to learn she’d been assigned to the hospital in R that had so often drawn her attention.

During her three-month training assignment, Vandana learned to do c-sections, as well as how to treat snake bites and suicides – both endemic to the communities around the hospital. She also felt the weight of issues that take their toll on medical personnel in rural hospitals all over India. Villagers often wait too long, hoping their illness will go away without the need to pay a doctor or buy medicine. Doctors and nurses regularly see patients in advanced stages of diseases – often long after treatment is possible. Each day brings fresh stories of abuse and tragedy that begin to blur together. “It’s very easy to lose compassion,” she now reflects.

A woman from the local community waits to see a doctor. Most women come to the hospital with a male relative, who often does all of the talking and makes all of the decisions on their behalf. - Photo by Brian

A woman from the local community waits to see a doctor. Most women come to the hospital with a male relative, who often does all of the talking and makes all of the decisions on their behalf. - Photo by Brian

Vandana met a handsome young dentist, Vijay, while receiving training. They married six months later and were sent to a different hospital. They were surprised to find themselves somewhat disappointed not to be back in R.

Several year’s work experience, a second degree in public health, and two daughters later, the need for a dentist called Vijay and Vandana back to R’s hospital. Vandana began work in the community health department, which was seen as an add-on to the hospital. The department had three programs which were running “as usual – by tradition,” Vandana remembers. The generations-old, systemic problems plaguing the communities around the hospital weighed heavily on her. She began taking walks in the area, asking God to give her a love for the community.

She also began casting a new vision for the staff – one of responsiveness to the needs of the community rather than a system built on tradition. Vandana and her staff grew into the vision together. She became a bold manager and they found a new energy and passion for their work. There are now nine different projects – two of which have a plan for the entire district in which the hospital is located. Some of their newest projects deal with issues like mental illness and domestic abuse; intravenous drug addiction; child/bonded labor and human trafficking.

Community volunteers visit local schools to help teach children the basics of hygiene - like washing their hands before eating or using a toothbrush. On special occasions, like Christmas, they are able to pass out hygiene kits containing soap, toothbrushes, combs, etc. - Photo courtesy of CHETNA Staff. 

Community volunteers visit local schools to help teach children the basics of hygiene - like washing their hands before eating or using a toothbrush. On special occasions, like Christmas, they are able to pass out hygiene kits containing soap, toothbrushes, combs, etc. - Photo courtesy of CHETNA Staff. 

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hen her day of meeting, strategizing, and administrative tasks is over, Vandana tries not to take work home with her. It’s hard not to be preoccupied by the day, no matter how deeply she desires to create time and space for her daughters. As their girls have gotten older, Vandana and Vijay have become more open with them about the problems they confront in their medical and community development work. “We talk like friends,” she says. “I share the challenges with my family so we can discuss them and pray together. They understand what’s going on. When we pray together, we’re seeing solutions come. They see God working.”Her daughters have caught Vandana’s attitude and believe their mother can solve nearly any problem in the world. On a simple run to the market, the girls will see a problem or issue and say, “Okay, Mummy. You can solve this problem – you should do this work also.”

As the projects grew, the administrative needs began to keep Vandana from interacting directly with the community. While she still tries to visit community projects once a week, she sees her greatest impact can be in the lives of her staff members. “If I have one staff member who’s mentored well – that person will have a lot of impact in the community.”

Vandana has recently begun giving an “employee of the month” award, and bases it not just on performance in a person’s paid job – but for growth and transformation in staff member’s personal lives. The first recipient was the cleaning lady who took initiative to bring mentally ill patients and their families to the new project dealing directly with helping the mentally ill. Another staff member was recognized when she took a stand against a child marriage perpetrated by her own family members, another for using his free time to teach guitar lessons to kids from the local school.

Investing in her staff has also driven Vandana to make changes in the community project’s hiring policy. When she arrived at the community health department, they only employed Christians. This often meant hiring from out of the area, or even from out of state. She began to open positions up to applicants from the local area, no matter their religion.

“When we go away, we leave our values in the community because we’re passing along our values to these staff members. They will be the salt and light here long after I’ve gone away.”

Leaving R, however, isn’t something Vandana can imagine herself doing anytime soon. “I feel like I’m a part of this place,” she says.

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