'C' for hope in this hospital

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The memory began to haunt him, even as he was clicking the photographs. Then the questions started to pour. H G Prashanth, the photographer, had lost his mother in 1975 to breast cancer, when he was just a one-and-half year old baby.

It was the same year when the chairman of the Bharath Hospital and Institute of Oncology Dr B S Ajaikumar with big dreams of doing something to the underprivileged went to United States of America. It was while he was doing internship at the University of Wisconsin that he interned in the radiation oncology department.

“Seeing the terminally ill patients, I decided to really learn more. I applied at the prestigious M D Anderson Hospital and Tumor Institute, Houston, the world’s biggest cancer centre. I learnt radiation medical oncology for three years,” he told City Herald.

Dr Ajaikumar decided to come back to India and do something for the people of the country. “I had come to Kidwai Memorial Institute of Oncology in Bangalore to deliver a  talk. I spoke to the then director  about wanting to return to the country and work for the underprivileged. But his response was very cold. It was then I decided to start my own centre,” he said.

Returning to the  US,  he started the first centre in Chicago and began treating cancer patients within 100 miles radius. It  became very successful. “My first patient Phyllis had cancer of the breast (she was a terminally ill patient). But we began treating her in 1978. She lived for eight more years. She did every physical activity. But in 1986 I came to India on a short visit. When I returned it was on a Sunday. She was waiting for my return and died the same night,” recalled Dr Ajaikumar.

The beginning
The bug to do something in India then caught up with him. “When I told my  family about the decision to start a cancer hospital in India, nobody was happy about it. But I was firm on my vision. I chose  Mysore as it was close to my heart. After all, my father Sadashivaiah, who was the Law College principal, was from this city. Mysore was a semi-rural area and it was not easy to set up a hospital here,” he said.

It was the then additional chief secretary K S N Murthy who gave him all the encouragement to start the hospital. “I still remember. Ramakrishna Hegde, the then chief minister had come to US in 1986.

Critic A K Ramanujam (who is now in the news because his essays on Ramayana has been banned by Delhi University), a good friend of my brother introduced me to Hegde and told him about my passion to start a cancer hospital. His reaction was to say the least shocking.

“Why do we need another hospital when we have Kidwai?” Ramanujam was ashamed to hear this,” he reminisced.

However, the Karnataka State Industrial Development Board land in Hebbal was allotted to Dr Ajaikumar to start BHIO. “It was a rocky terrain. Not one person had hope that it would develop into anything worthwhile. But it was the time when the young Dr M S Vishveshwara, the chief radiation oncologist joined us. We had a very dedicated team who took everythingin their stride and stood by me,” he said.

“It took a long time for the then KEB to sanction power. We had to run the hospital on generators for more than a year,” said Dr Vishveshwara.

Registration
“The total registration in the past  20 years has been nearly 36,000. From a 20-bed hospital in 1990, today it has grown to a 100-bed one. We have conducted more than 1,500 cancer clinics in and around Mysore, Gundlupet, Mercara and Chikkaballapur. What we found was that majority were suffering from cervical cancer and this is because of the  unhygienic conditions they live in. In 1993 we started the ‘free food programme,’ to general ward patients,” said Dr Ajaikumar.

BHIO joined hands with JSS Mahavidya Peetha and Suttur seer Shivarathri Deshikendra swami gave them all the encouragement.

“Today we are proud to say we have changed the face of cancer care all over the country through HCG. Cancer treatment is the cheapest in our country when compared to other countries. For instance if it costs $2,000, here it costs as much as $30,000 in the US and $20,000 in Europe and Singapore and all this we are doing without any support from the government,” he said.

With new equipment like linear accelator, intensity modulation radiation therapy (IMRT) and high dose rate brachy therapy (HDR), theradiation therapy has become localized zeroing only to the effectedcells, said Dr Vishveshwara.

“We conduct around 50 to 60 surgeries a month of the breast, head and neck, cervical and so on. 30 to 40 per cent of the rural women who chew tobacco have oral cancer,” said chief surgical oncologist Dr Ganesh Rao K.

“Mysore has taught me more than what I have given,” said Dr Ajaikumar. The haunting picture for this writer as he left the hospital was of the cute little five-year-old girl being treated for blood cancer.

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