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Medicine, his life's mission

Selfless service is the credo of Col. R. D. Ayyar. At ninety-five, the former British Army surgeon continues to practise medicine, touching the lives of people around him. A profile.

BE IT the dawn of an independent India, the worst epidemics, natural calamities, or significant world happenings, this 95-year-old surgeon has seen them all. A brief stint in the British Army, transformed Col. R. D. Ayyar into a man of steel, giving him the confidence to rise to challenges single-handed. A staunch Gandhian, his voice never falters even for a minute when he talks about his career and the state of medicare facilities in the country.

"Even after 55 years of Independence, our country lacks basic health care infrastructure. Almost 90 per cent of pregnant women do not have access to medical facilities. What have we achieved in terms of health care and medical education? And what has been done to revive this sinking arm of society," he asks.

Ayyar graduated as a demonstrator in anatomy in June 1930, and went on to become a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, U. K. In 1935, he joined the Indian Medical Services (IMS) of the British Army as a surgeon.

He was one among 32 specialists in the IMS and the first Indian to serve as advisor to the council. From then, there has been no looking back for Ayyar.

"We were taught that the patient is our only commitment. But, today, values have changed drastically and huge sums have to be paid to get a medical seat. Merit has absolutely no place. So how can one expect quality medical care? Worse, it is seldom that one comes across a doctor who is altruistic," says Ayyar who never collects a fee from patients who cannot afford it.

Chosen by none other than Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru for the award of a Padma Bhushan in 1962, Ayyar wears his laurels modestly. A man of simple and kindly ways, he is fondly referred to as `barefoot doctor' by patients. He retired as Director General of Health Services in 1969 and was retained as honorary consulting surgeon for the Government of India for almost 10 years thereafter.

Dr. Rajendra Prasad, Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, and M. S. Subbulakshmi are among the eminent personalities for whom he was consulting surgeon. "Those days, there were not many surgeons so we had a lot of opportunities," says a nostalgic Ayyar.

Honorary professorship at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, professorship at the Indore Medical College, vice-chairmanship of the Indian Red Cross Society and a stint as surgeon at the Safdarjung Hospital, New Delhi are some of the prestigious positions he has held. "My father was a doctor, so it was quite natural for me to follow in his footsteps and I have never regretted this decision. My son too has taken after me and is a neurologist in the U.S.

"The primary health centres and the dispensaries run by the Central Government Health Services in the country seldom meet even minimum standards. Moreover, these days, there are few doctors who are willing to work in the rural areas. And as the hospitals lack facilities, the patients are forced to travel to the big cities and shell out huge sums of money for treatment, though they can scarcely afford it. A hospital should have at least 300 beds with all specialities under one roof. Unfortunately, this is not the case in our country. Further, the most important issue that needs to be addressed is the population explosion. Except for Kerala, little seems to have been elsewhere in the country to keep the population under check," says the concerned doctor, who moved back to his home in Adyar after retirement in the mid-1980s.

A voracious reader, he feels that the media can bring to light the ills of the health care delivery system in the country. "Instead of complaining about the existing situation, it is wise if each one of us starts thinking what best can be done for society. The private sector can do wonders by taking the initiative to provide quality medicare that is affordable," he said.

PRASSANA SRINIVASAN

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