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Father Tomy Knows Best: Healing with love

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Father Tomy Knows Best: Healing with love

By Dipti Raut

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


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


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


" 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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