Nagpur: We enter the 3 storeyed ‘Ashwasth’ Hospice through the room of a hefty looking, but completely paralyzed ‘patient’. His young son is sitting next to him since it is visiting hours at the hospice.
This building’s every square inch of space is used for housing patients and other inmates, there is no place for pretentious niceties like a lobby, a reception area or a Visitor’s waiting room. You enter directly through a patient’s room and then climb the stairs to Sunanda Patrikar‘s living room/bedroom/ puja room/ drawing room. Though the whole house belongs to her this smallish room is her only domain in it. It contains a single bed, 3 chairs, one teepoy and a puja ghar in the corner where one lamp is always lit.
Right next to Sunanda’s living quarters is the kitchen which also has a dining table to seat 8.
“Which ever patient/ inmate is mobile comes here to eat, rest are served in their rooms” explains Sunanda.
So what is Ashwastha? What does it do??
The name ‘Ashwastha’ may remind many of the Hindi/ Marathi word ‘Aswastha’ which means unwell. And yes, people living in Ashwastha are all mostly unwell, but that is not the meaning of the word.
Ashwastha is the Sanskrit word for the Peepal (fig) tree. This tree is very significant in Indian history and mythology.
In the hot, Indian summer this tree provides the shade to rest for humans, horses and other animals. Thus, this tree often takes a central place in Indian villages and often times the village councils are held under it. The tree carries a number of significant medicinal qualities and formed the core of ancient Indian medicine.
Vedas call the tree Ashvatta – the shade that provide rest for the divine horse. In Tamil culture they call it the Arasa Maram – the king of trees. Bhagvat Gita calls the tree as the manifestation of Krishna. Atharvana Veda book 5 calls the tree the Amrita [elixir] of the world. Siddhartha Gautama [founder of Buddhism] meditated under the tree and became the Buddha. Thus, Buddhists call the tree Bodhi – the tree of enlightenment. India’s great emperor – Ashoka – worshipped the tree. The Sri Lankans took a shoot of the divine tree in Gaya and have been protecting it for 2200 years – making it among the oldest living things on earth.
No wonder then that when Sunanda decided to begin a hospice for such people who can no longer be kept in a hospital – since they are beyond treatment – and cannot be cared for at home too, she decided to call it Ashwastha. The logo of her institute depicts a peepal tree, a round platform under it, an old man sitting leaning against the trunk, on the other side one woman sitting in yogic position with a child in her lap and a young man, looking like a police man(?) sitting in front with his legs down on the ground.
Sunanda Patrikar nee Joshi said it was the condition of her younger brother that inspired her to start such a place.
When he was just 2 years old he became very sick… but it took Doctors over 3 months to diagnose what was wrong with him. Then they found out he had polio, but by then he was untreatable and had become physically handicapped for life. Her parents had to sacrifice their lives in looking after him at home. He never walked but otherwise he led a normal adult life due to their care; he even got married, had children and retired from a semi government job.
Looking at him and her parents struggling to care for him and yet manage their own jobs and lives made Sunanda realize how necessary an affordable Hospice was for ordinary people who could not care for their sick or immobilized patients at home.
Her father in law, who was a renowned Astrologer, encouraged her to start Ashwastha and promised he would not only ‘finance’ her enterprise but become the first ‘inmates’ too!
Little did Sunanda know that it would be her young son in law, married just an year ago to her only daughter who would be her first ‘official’ patient.
Vasanth Dhumal , was in his mid twenties when he had a freak accident. He fell into a toilet and his foot got stuck in the manhole. Ligaments of his ankle broke when they extracted it and he needed to be in bed for half a year almost. Sunanda housed him and her daughter and nursed him back to health. Ever since then, he has been with Ashwastha, helping his mother in law run it.
Now even his 23 years’ old son, Vaibhav, who is studying Law is a Care Giver at this Hospice along with his parents Rajlaxmi and Vasanth Dhumal.
They have no male or female nurses, no 24 hour attendants – just a part time cook and a maid – yet they have run this unique institute for 26 years now!
” We have formed a Trust to ‘manage’ it, we have all the licenses and registrations, also IT exemption, but we do not get or take any ‘grant’ or donations. We could approach Corporates for donations under their CSR schemes, but we are all so busy running it, who has the time?” Says Sunanda.
Their very modest brochure of two pages says “Our Specialty is : facility for bed ridden patients ( in a Homely atmosphere), mentally retarded patients or old age and retired people.” (Exemption under Section 80 G/A 46/2013-14). The tag line is : We are for you, this is our motto!
So, don’t patients, or their relatives pay for their care? We ask.
“Yes, they do – when they can!” Sunanda replies matter of fact.
“But we have very old rates which have never been updated, and some patients now do not have any relative left to pay for them, but they stay on. We have some who have been with us for over 20 years. We do not turn anyone out for lack of money, they are part of our family now. And anyway, we had decided right at the beginning that on every 10 patients, we will keep one free. In no case, shall we ever give up being humane! ”
So sometime close relatives like their own children or parents desert a patient, do not come to visit them, or even make timely payment, but Sunanda and family continue to look after them.
“They either get well and go back home, or they go to God’s abode – their final home. Till then they remain with us” says Vasanth Dhumal.
Who are the patients?
There are accident cases who are paralyzed for a long time, stroke patients who seem permanently bed ridden, Cancer patients in their last stage, highly diabetic patients who have become immobile, mentally retarded or disturbed patients, or just old people who have nowhere else to go.
The miracle cures!
Though the litany of patients seems like there is no hope for many of them, there are some miraculous cures and people who seemed to be in for a long haul, get ‘normal’ and go home in a month!
Last year, there were two such young men, one had met with a bad accident, another was a case of suicidal depression. The first was brought to Ashwastha on a stretcher; the second was admitted as a ‘hopeless case’. The first patient’s parents had thought their son would not be able to walk – if at all! – for a long time. He went home, on his two feet, after just one month!
The second got back his will to live and function normally, and was also taken back by his parents in one month!
What is the secret behind the miracles?
Sunanda is neither a Doctor nor a trained nurse, a physiotherapist etc but she has the healing touch and lots of patience and love to bestow on her patients. She has self taught skills of massaging and soothing a troubled soul.
When we are with her, she gets a call from the ground floor.
The patient with paralysis – whose room we entered through – is moving around restlessly and may fall off his bed, says his panic stricken son.
“How can I prevent that? I am a frail old woman, call Vasanth” says Sunanda; but when she learns he has gone out, she rushes down herself. (Later, when we leave, we find this patient sleeping serenely in his bed, with a smaller bed tucked next to his, so even if he falls if he rolls, it will be onto this smaller bed.) “He is a new patient. We have ordered a special bed for him with railings.”
When we are still talking with Sunanda and Vasanth, a patient’s brother walks in
“She is so changed! So peaceful, almost normal, and even trying to sit up and walk on her own!
How did you manage it?” He asks. Then he sees us and realizing there are visitors becomes self conscious.
He explains that his sister, who has had uncontrolled high diabetes for over 30 years, had become stiff
and almost paralyzed. She could not even lie down properly. Her ailment also made her very irritable and bad tempered. She was in Mure Memorial for some time but the nurses there said they could not control her. So he brought her here.
“What do you think is different here?” We ask.
“She looks after her patients like a mother. Even bathes them daily herself.
For the first time my sister feels cared for and valued, so she must be co operating.”
“When a mother looks after her own child it is an easier task and comes naturally. When
You have to be mother to strangers who are as old as you, or even older, that is impossible.
But she does it!” Says her son in law with reverence.
Naturally, he knows, he was her first patient!
Address: 196, Nelco Housing Society, Subhash Nagar, Nagpur 440022
Phone : 0712- 2225900
Mobile : Vasanth Dhumal 9960221763
… Sunita Mudaliar ( Associate Editor )