I am sitting in sparsely done up room, with the very basics of human needs and yet the room has character to it. Perhaps I thought, because it is home to the illustrious personality I am about to meet. Enters Sr. Jacqueline Jean McEwan, fondly called as Bangalore’s Mother Teresa, and suddenly there is an immensity to the room.
Sr. Jean joined the Montfort Missionaries, as a part of their medical team to come to Bengaluru to work with the leprosy-affected in association with an NGO in Bangalore called the Sumnahalli Society, in 1982.
Apart from treating thousands of Leprosy patients, Sr. Jean is also associated with the rehabilitation of street children and those from ‘Tough situations’, with education. Her work has been appreciated worldwide and recently the Indian Government came under a lot of flak when her residency permit was not renewed in 2011 and she was asked to leave the country. Amidst International pressure and the outrage of her numerous fans things were restored to normalcy by the intervention of Union Home Minister P Chidambaram, himself.
A pair of blue eyes and a happily careful visage politely offers me water and some curd as she asks me, “I have no idea how I would make an interesting copy, but you can ask me what you like”. I smile and we begin. She rambles and I let her-
Where did your journey begin and how? Tell me about your work with Sumanahalli society.
Sr. Jean- I always knew I wanted to do something related to medicine and today my working for Leprosy patients, I see it as what God wanted me to do. I had trained while in UK in Tropical diseases and especially in Leprosy care. What we provide today here is of course after cure, care. But there are many for those who we care, who die, strangely not because of Leprosy but because of other associated diseases. We treat a lot of patients above the age of 50 and the death rate amongst them, are higher, because they were diagnosed at a much later date. But the good news is that, people with Leprosy are being detected at earlier stages and as a result treated better.
How easy or difficult is it working with them? What is the process that you go about?
Sr. Jean: When I began in 1982 and even now, we work in slums, some of these slums have developed into proper areas. We work in one part of the slum, identify the persons affected with Leprosy, start the treatment and then go to another area, the next moth we come back to the same area and do a follow- up on the treatment on those whom we had already treated. This is how it goes.
But now there is a problem, volunteers who work with us are not allowed to take surveys of how many Leprosy patients are detected because, the Govt has declared the near elimination of Leprosy, but when you are talking of near elimination, even one case in some thousands, in a population of so many billions could become quite a huge number.
Strange as it may seem, it is sometimes easier to deal with patients who have no knowledge of Leprosy than those who are somewhat informed. In most such cases a man who is above the age of 55, has grown up to certain system of awareness, by which he thinks that Leprosy is contagious. There are families also who think like that and at times isolate the family member.
Tell us of any incident that you remember, that affected you?
Sr. Jean: I remember a young girl. She was so affected by her condition and deep rooted in her belief that she would be ostracized by society that she went about telling everyone that the marks were due to a bad case of burns. In spite of it being very plain for anyone to understand that she had Leprosy. I remember another old man, who was very close to his granddaughter but could not meet her because the family would not allow the child close to her grandfather, in the fear of infection.
Do you see many young men and women volunteer for such work?
Sr. Jean: Yes there are many. Some who come as a part of some program from outside and other Indians also, who come from time to time and devote what time they can.
Tell us about the work that you do in the field of education?
Sr. Jean: Actually it started with the Leprosy patients. Many of them understand the problem of not being educated and want their children or grandchildren to be educated. We do that in the slums and it’s not always easy because coming from a family that has not seen education its always more tempting to go back to earning a few bucks. Also we stopped insisting on English education for the children as we found that it was difficult for the children to cope up with it, when they go back to homes where the language is not spoken at all. Today, we have many children from different backgrounds studying with us, we make sure that we make note of their progress reports and school attendance too.
Any endearing moments in this journey?
Sr. Jean: Yes many actually. But I was especially overwhelmed by the reaction of people at the recent fiasco of not granting an extension of my Visa, about a year earlier, when I thought I almost had to leave the country, till it was finally in place again. So many of the patients came to me and pleaded with me not to go, in their very own ways. Those were very emotional times for me.
You have been fondly called the Mother Teresa of Bangalore..
Sr. Jean: (She smiles and shakes her head in embarrassment) People who have given me this title just love me a lot! I haven’t done anything compared to what Mother Teresa has done so the comparison is embarrassing for me actually.
As I wrap up I ask her, ‘Do you miss home?” She looks at me with a twinkle in her eyes and says, “Sometimes I do, but this is now more home to me than England, I do go back once in a while though". For a lady who remembers half her patient’s name and faces and reads fairly enough Kanada, she tells me with a laugh, “I can travel in local buses and understand when they tell me about their problems, though I might not be able to understand if they mention a tap leaking”
In my dictionary she understands the most important language, that of love, without any barriers and that is perhaps much more than enough. Thank you gentle lady.