#IAmCompassion: Dr. Renuka Ramakrishnan Breaks Boundaries With Love
A life changing incident in her youth helped her decide what she wanted to be - a social reformer! Dr. Renuka Ramakrishnan has been breaking boundaries ever since - with love and compassion!
By Kerina De Floras • 15 min read
“A life not lived for others is not a life.” ― Mother Teresa
This Women’s Day, we at ParentCircle, present inspiring stories of the women of today for the women of tomorrow! Read, be inspired and share these incredible stories with your daughters. Let your little girls look up to these real-life role models as they grow up to become the strong women of tomorrow.
This #IAmWoman story relates to #IAmCompassion.
Inspired by Mother Teresa, Dr Renuka Ramakrishnan has been a blessing to many because of her unimaginable compassion. She has dedicated her life to treating leprosy patients and breaking the stigma around it. Further, her humanitarian deeds do not stop there – she also conducts free medical camps, counsels people on the verge of suicide and educates children from tribal communities. An event changed her life when she was a young teenager, and she has never looked back since!
Dr Renuka Ramakrishnanopens up toParentCircleabout it all! Read on to know about what she has to say about being compassionate and changing the world, one smile at a time!
Was it always your dream to become a doctor?
Yes, I have always wanted to become a doctor from childhood. As a child, I went around giving fake injections to my family. I did not think about taking up dermatology or treating leprosy patients back then, but I was motivated to serve people. My father, who was a Lt. Colonel in the army was my inspiration. He was serving the country and I wanted to serve the people. So, I was fixed on becoming a doctor to serve people who did not have any access to health care, like villagers or tribal groups.
Yes, we have read your father played a huge role in you becoming who you are today. How did he inspire you?
Although I was pampered by my father as I was the youngest child in the family, he made sure to correct me when I was wrong. He was my muse for the fake injections and always encouraged me to follow my dreams. He used to share his stories of his army life when he served in the Kumaon regiment. I remember about one vividly – he had fallen into a ditch and was trapped there for 48 hours. He lost his limb in that accident. Such stories made me feel proud that my dad was sacrificing his life for the country. He has been my inspiration to serve people and my role model to continue doing what I do.
What was that turning point in your life that urged you to dedicate your life to treating and caring for leprosy patients?
When I was 16 years of age, I used to walk to school every day. Kumbakonam, where we lived, was known for its sacred temples and ponds. On the way to school I had to cross the sacred Mahamaham kulam (pond). One day I saw a crowd of people near the pond and I wondered what had happened there. So, I decided to peep into the crowd and saw that there was a naked dead body of a man. I was surprised to see people standing around doing nothing, closing their noses and trying to keep a distance from the dead body. I wondered why they were so inhuman as to not even think about covering him up.
The people didn’t try to inform anyone to transport the dead body, but were just talking among themselves about how the sanity of the water had been spoilt. I went nearer and saw that the person’s hands and legs were folded – he was a leprosy patient. I did not know much about leprosy back then. The people affected by leprosy are called ‘Thozhu noyali’ (patients suffering from skin disease) in Tamil. I then realized that that was the reason why these people were closing their noses. My instinct told me to remove my dupatta and cover the dead body. So, I did that first.
I then asked the people around if they would help me to move the dead body, as I did not know what to do. Back then, we did not have any organisation we could call up to remove the dead body. So, I asked the people around if anyone could help me lift the man into a rickshaw so I could take him to a cremation ground. Nobody came forward to help. I had to beg many people and then finally four cycle-rickshaw drivers offered to help. However, they were unwilling to touch the dead body with their bare hands. I told them to wrap their hands and nose if they wanted to. They did so and then lifted the dead body into the rickshaw, and one of the rickshaw drivers offered to accompany me to the cremation ground.
We went to the nearest cremation ground, but they refused to let us cremate the dead body there because he was a leprosy patient. They bluntly told me, “No place for leprosy patients here”. They also said that being a young girl I must just leave him like the others did and not try to help. Without uttering a word, we moved on to the next cremation ground. It was 30 km away and the dead body was heavy as it was already soaked in water. I was very tired as it was almost 12 pm. An old man at the cremation ground told me that he would help me. “It is wonderful to see you doing this at such a young age. God bless you!”, he said.
I gave him 10 Rupees to cremate the man and told him that it was all I had. He politely refused the money and went on to perform all the rituals for cremation himself. I was very happy and thanked God for being able to pay a man his final respects. That day I cried when the final rites were being done. I was deeply hurt that while people with diabetes or tuberculosis were being treated normally in the society, people affected by leprosy were not, just because it was a deformity. I made up my mind then to become a dermatologist or a leprologist then. I took a decision that I will treat leprosy patients for free and remove the stigma attached to this disease.
Then I went home and told my dad about what I had done. I asked him “Can I still stay at home or do you want me to go away?” He told me that he would accept me, but others might not. He explained that most of them, including my mother, would think that I had sinned by touching a man who had leprosy. He assured me that a time would come when God would give me an opportunity to let the society know what I had done. My father is no more, but I have been doing what he asked me to.
That is a wonderful act of compassion indeed. How important is compassion? How do you think we can raise children with compassion?
I think it is important to teach children about love and affection – not only to family members, but also to outsiders. When you see beggars on the street, instead of giving them money, ask them if they want food. Urge your children to get food for them from their pocket money, even if it is for 10 rupees. Encourage your children to save money to help the needy, starting at Re 1 a day. Explain to your children that old people beg on the streets as they don’t have a home or enough money. Tell them it is important to take care of old people and that it is not right to leave parents unattended after they grow old. I was very happy to see so many youngsters volunteering and helping people during the Chennai floods.
Tell us about your life and the other works of compassion you have done.
I maybe a well-known Senior Consultant Dermatologist and Leprologist, but I am happier to be known as a social reformer. I did my Post graduation at JIPMER in Pondicherry. After that I got a government job, but I did not want to join there. I went straight to St. Thomas Leprosy Centre in Chetpet, which was then a small village near Tiruvanamalai district. I started working as a medical officer there. I realized that the people there did not have access to healthcare. Many doctors were not willing to work in such rural areas. So, I took up night shifts as well, twice a week.
We came across several patients and their health conditions during night shifts – not only those complaining about skin conditions. I have attended emergency deliveries, heart attacks, poisoning, snake bites and more. I also took up additional shifts, as much as possible as I was happy to help many people. I spent the money I got for taking up night shifts on leprosy patients who I attended to in the morning. I also educated their children as much as I could, helped them with their school fees or got them stationery like pencils or books. I also worked for HIV patients in Javadhu Malai. I used to visit the tribal population in that area and advised them about safe sex and HIV.
I also work towards awareness of breast cancer, child sexual abuse, and improving the lives of transgenders. I try to help transgenders get jobs through trainings, and make sure they are not discriminated in the society. I do what I can for people to get the satisfaction of being able to help someone each day. I believe that even a small smile can change someone’s life. I also take up suicide counselling on social media. I have received messages from many people on the verge of suicide and prevented them from doing so by sending them positive messages. I am very happy that I have saved many lives through counselling and they now call me a mind reformer. I also conduct free medical camps at various places and help people in remote villages.
Can you tell us about any empowering moment or incident in your life that made you feel proud to be a woman?
I felt proud to be a woman when I gave birth to my children. I am very proud and gifted to be a mother. I felt the same way when my grandson came into this world. Women must not hesitate to do any social service or work. You will be able to do it, if you have the determination to do it. Don’t lose hope when you lose. Keep climbing the ladder, one at a time, and don’t do it alone. Take your friends or family who need help and urge them to go on the flight of success along with you. This way you will reach your goal and also help someone else follow their passion.
What is your message for the women of tomorrow?
I ask all the little girls who dream of taking medicine to do so. Please try to take up dermatology or leptology, as many people out there need your help. I will be around for some time, but I also want other people to help patients as much as I do. I think every woman is empowered and is an inspiration to other women. I wouldn’t be here without my mother – I am nothing without her. Appreciate each other, and don’t judge other women. Follow your ambition and don’t worry about the obstacles that come your way. Whatever you do, never give up. As a woman, you will face many obstructions in your path as you climb to higher levels. Overcome them and show the world that you are a woman of substance and that you can do what you think is right. Always listen to your parents and have good friends. Also, read inspiring stories of people like Mother Teresa, Dr. Abdul Kalam and learn from them.
Who is that one woman who inspires you and why?
The woman who inspires me is Mother Teresa. Though I have not seen her, I am happy that she has visited the place where I work now. I visit the church she has been to and pray there. When I go there, I feel happy that she had been there before. Every day I read one of her sayings and try to follow them.
Your message to women on women’s day!
I think that one day is not enough to celebrate women – every day must be a celebration. I urge all women to take care of yourselves too, as much as you take care of your family. Help as many people as possible and lead happy lives. Practice yoga and meditation to stay fit. If anyone can do it, you can do it too! Remember that we can achieve many things together!
To listen to the entire interview with Dr Renuka Ramakrishnan, check out our exclusive podcast!
Hall of Fame:
2019: Maruthuva Semmal Award from International Peace University, Germany
2018: Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy Lifetime Achievement Award, Medical excellence Award in Dermatology and Social Service
2016: “MOTHER THERESA” AWARD by Singam Virudhu For Social service In Medical Field, RAJIV GANDHI GOLD STAR MILIENIUM AWARD for Service to Leprosy patients.
2015: “WOMEN ACHIEVER AWARD” 2015 From ANNA NAGAR TOWERS CLUB, Ladies Forum, “GEM OF TAMIL NADU” From National Integrity Cultural Academy
2012: EZHUTHENI ARAKATALAI Given AWARD for Social Service - 2012
About the author:
Written by Kerina De Floras on 3 March 2020.
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