A patient receives a basic exam at the Holy Ghost Mission Hospital. (photo: Sean Sprague)
Students receive three years of classroom instruction at the school. (photo: Sean Sprague)
Student nurses in India review their textbooks. (photo: Sean Sprague)
A man with a back injury receives care from a student nurse. (photo: Sean Sprague)
Indians across the globe often complain of having to debunk the stereotype that they are all doctors or nurses. But in the same breath, many expatriate Indians will reveal that one or both of their parents urged them as youngsters to join the medical profession.
Indeed, Indians make up a sizable chunk of the health care ranks in the United States, the Gulf region and the United Kingdom, which has relied on its former colony to staff much of its National Health Service.
Medical and nursing schools dot the Indian landscape, but these educational institutions have long been the province of the countrys moneyed classes.
A nursing school in Muttuchira in the southwestern state of Kerala, however, is correcting this socioeconomic imbalance by lessening the financial burden faced by students trying to enter perhaps the most highly esteemed profession on the subcontinent. Founded in 1979 with 10 students, the Holy Ghost Mission Hospital Nursing School now boasts over 100 enrollees. Most come from families lacking the resources to guide their children into careers in medicine and rely on scholarships for their studies.
The school offers a three-year course in nursing, which leads to a state and nationwide certificate as a registered nurse and midwife. During the first two years the women study general nursing; in the third year they move on to midwifery, gynecology and public health. After the third year they serve a one-year internship at the adjacent Holy Ghost Mission Hospital, working as student nurses before earning their certificates.
Lowering the financial hurdles to medical education, however, has not meant lowering academic standards.
According to the schools administrator, Adoration Sister Angelus, the school accepts 35 candidates a year out of a pool of more than 250 applicants.
Our selection criteria require them to have high grades in science when they finish high school, she says. They must be between the ages of 17 and 27, single and of good health and character. They must also have a good command of English, the language of instruction at the school and most colleges and universities in India.
Sudhil, 20, is in her second year. Economic hardship did not keep her from finishing high school, but paying for professional training was beyond the means of her cash-strapped family. My father runs a small tea stall and my mother collects firewood from the forest, she says. Life is very difficult for them, but they managed to scrape together the 10,000 rupees ($220) for my first year of study.
There was no money for a second or third year, but the school helped Sudhil find sponsors. The second and third years cost less, 7,100 rupees plus a mess fee, but I am sponsored by some kind Keralites living in New York.
Sudhils benefactors are often the friends or relatives of Father Matthew, who directs both the hospital and affiliated nursing school. Well into his 70s, a fact belied by his smooth skin and bright eyes, he takes pride in shepherding his more needy students, making every effort to secure scholarships for those who cannot pay.
Spending a day with the priest is to witness his skill as a networker and fund-raiser an invaluable asset to the school and its students. Father Matthew travels frequently to lobby wealthy Keralites abroad, as well as international aid agencies, for money for his students.
Bolstered by the success of the school, his efforts have secured funds from a variety of international sources for a new building. Donations from CNEWA, the Italian Bishops Conference, a businessman from Dubai and a local bank, which provided an eight-year loan, have made the new facility a reality. Rising four stories above the areas surrounding coconut trees, the building houses the students dormitories and classrooms, as well as a kitchen and dining room.
The new facility is a welcome addition for the hospital, which depends on the hard work of the student nurses. Founded in 1954, the nonprofit hospital is run by a trust under the patronage of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Bishop of Palai. It serves the public irrespective of caste or creed.
The students spend much of their time at the hospital, especially during the mandatory internship and benefit from their experience with a myriad of departments: general medicine, general surgery, cardiology, obstetrics and gynecology, pediatrics, orthopedics, ophthalmology, oncology, ear-nose-throat, dermatology, dentistry and physiotherapy. The hospital also boasts an X-ray unit, clinical laboratory and blood bank.
Although not as well equipped as those in the West, the hospital offers excellent service and care. Injured in a motorcycle accident, Mary Kutty attests to the facilitys reputation and skill of its nurses. The hospital and nursing school are fantastic, says Ms. Kutty, herself a nurse for many years at a hospital in Saudi Arabia.
The treatment is first class. The nurses are kind and take care of us very well, she adds. The only problem is funding, but they do brilliantly with what theyve got.
On any given day the hospital sees 250-400 patients many of whom are unable to pay. For some cases we offer treatment free of charge, says Sister Ancy, the hospital supervisor. Certainly in life-saving situations we would treat them regardless. It is part of our Christian duty.
The devotion of the professional staff at the hospital has been critical to its success. In Kerala state hospitals, nurses earn about 5,000 rupees ($110) per month, although in private ones such as Holy Ghost they earn only half that, despite the often superior quality of health care.
Under the guidance of these highly committed and skilled teachers, the poorer student nurses learn a valuable profession that will bring their families out of the poverty that afflicts much of India.
Renimol Jose, 20, is completing her second year. I wanted to be a nurse since I was 15, but it was a struggle for me to afford to come here. My father is a rubber tapper and my mother is sick and cannot work, she says. A sponsor in New York pays my fees.
She said after graduation she wants to stay and find work in Kerala, but the state has limited employment opportunities for all professionals. If she is forced to emigrate for work, she will join the thousands of other Indians working far from home on the strength of their education. Abroad she will be able to earn a high salary by Indian standards and send generous remittances back home to help her parents. India and other developing nations have come to rely on such remittances to keep their foreign-currency-starved economies afloat.
Although it sends some graduates to cities as far away as Denver, Dover and Dubai, the schools primary impact is felt by Keralas poorest. From the humblest beginnings the students are emerging from Holy Ghost as fully confident professionals with a bright future and the will to serve Kerala, at home or abroad.
Sean Sprague travels the globe for CNEWA WORLD.