The Fire Within Me
This story goes back to year 1989. I was waking up from coma caused by cerebral malaria, admitted in a government hospital ward at Keonjhar in Odisha state of India. There were seven more children, then all younger than me also admitted in the same ward. I am the fortunate one who survived, and during my tenure in the hospital ward one after the other, all seven children did not make it. Maybe they were late to hospital or any form of medical care.
As my parents were posted at Keonjhar, we stayed in a government quarter beside a hill area from 1980 to 1992. The place is endemic for malaria and I suffered from malaria every year during rainy season, in total 13 times. It’s not only multiple suffering from malaria, but I have survived 4 episodes of Hepatitis (fortunately not Hepatitis B or C), chickenpox, bacteria & viral diarrhea, and multiple other infectious diseases common to developing countries.
Then Keonjhar was a small town surrounded by tribal villages. It was not easy to reach villages in the interior of hills and plateau. Once in a while I had been to those villages with my father as he used to work for tribal area development program.
The sight of death of all other children in my ward associated with the grief of their parents and my survival from the comatose state suffering from cerebral malaria resulted in a sense of deep awakening and understanding the need for access to health and vaccine preventable infectious diseases.
Single mindedly I studied to be a scientist to work on areas of infectious disease. My first job after PhD was at International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (United Nations) where I had the pleasure to work toward developing multiple malaria vaccine candidates. We went back to Odisha state for malaria epidemiology study and selected villages in Odisha state to initiate clinical trial of the malaria vaccine. A few years back one of the malaria vaccine candidate completed Phase 1 clinical trial with support from Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, European Vaccine Initiative and Government of India.
While working for Defense Research & Development Organization in India, I had another opportunity to work on Dengue, Japanese Encephalitis and Kyasanur Forest Disease (KFD). I vividly remember being vaccinated with a crude KFD vaccine preparation so that I could visit the forest area to collect samples and handle virus isolation and related molecular biology work. KFD is caused by a hemorrhagic virus still prevailing in several districts of Karnataka and has been reported from other neighboring states in India.
My deep sense of awakening and purpose to serve “Access to Health” at large did not die as I moved from public sector to private sector. I was fortunate that every role that I served in private sector had a manager who recognized the fire within me and provided opportunity way beyond my job scope to serve the greater cause.
In one of the Indian mythological epics called “Ramayana” there is mention about a squirrel who helped lord Rama in building a bridge in the ocean connecting Indian subcontinent to Lanka. The squirrel used to get wet in the ocean, roll over the sands and then go to the bridge under construction to shake his body to shed the sand. The squirrel did that again and again till the bridge construction was complete. I see myself as that squirrel contributing at my own capacity to the needs of vaccine preventable infectious disease and access to health. I am deeply humbled and blessed to have survived life threatening health situations that keeps my fire within glowing and helps me find opportunity to payback to the society and people.
Recently I was watching a TED talk by Simon Sinek discussing how great leaders inspire. The core of the message was “why we do is more important than what we do”. I guess the fire within me speaks volumes and defines why I do what I do.
I believe every child irrespective of economic background and social status has the right to their childhood and healthy future. I believe facilitating access to healthcare in order to preserve or improve health, and Vaccines/vaccination which in fact are one of the most economical healthcare interventions next to clean drinking water are a few that would improve people’s life. There is a lot to be done in the areas of “Access to Health”. Let the fire within be the guiding force for me to keep looking for opportunity that would provide the desired ambiance to make a difference.