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Vol. XXX No. 19, February 1-15, 2021

Dr. V. Shantha – The High Priestess of her ‘Temple’

by R.V. Rajan (

It was on 4th June 2012 that we got the shocking news – my wife was suffering from cancer and subsequent tests proved that it was cancer of the colon which had already metastasized to the liver and lungs.

It was an inoperable case. Unfortunately we discovered the disease very late – all the doctors who saw the test reports opined that cure was not possible. But still we had to give her some treatment to see if we could contain the disease so that she could live longer than what was predicted.

The choice for treatment was between a top five-star speciality hospital and the Cancer Institute. We were in a dilemma. My family had already undergone a bad experience of dealing with this particular star hospital for a simple procedure required for my granddaughter.

On the other hand, Cancer Institute Adyar run by the Women’s India Association (WIA), though a centre of excellence in cancer treatment, is a not-for-profit NGO and has the image of a typical government hospital. It caters largely to poor patients from across the country, who are given the expensive treatment, totally free of cost! So there was some hesitation on our part to go to the Cancer Institute. A senior doctor from the same five-star hospital whom we consulted informally helped us make up our mind. He said, “If you are prejudiced against the five-star hospital because of your bad experience, I would recommend you go to the Cancer Institute, Adyar, because they are one of the best in the country.”

I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. V. Shantha for an article I wrote on the Cancer Institute, which ­appeared in three parts in Madras Musings issues in June/July 2013. During the course of the interview, she admitted that she did not believe in going to temples as she considered the Cancer Institute, where she had served for 60 long years, as her temple. No wonder for lakhs of cancer patients who come with hopes in their hearts to the hospital, she and her team of dedicated doctors are like ‘Gods’. When I said this to her she responded with just a smile. A diminutive lady who looked a little frail at 85, she still displayed the same enthusiasm and energy when she talked about her favourite ‘temple’.

This was a few months after my wife passed away of colon cancer in spite of the efforts of the doctors at the Cancer Institute. Though my wife did not survive the disease I was very impressed with the transparent way the hospital treated us. Every doctor, nurse and other support staff we had to deal with were committed individuals with total focus on the patient’s needs & concerns – all under the dynamic leadership of Dr.V.Shantha who lived and breathed cancer care until her last moments in this world. In her passing away on January 19,2021,at a ripe age of 93 our country has lost an icon. I am sharing below my family`s experience in dealing with Dr Shantha’s ‘Temple’. This is my humble tribute to the memory of Dr. Shantha, who spent her lifetime in building the Cancer Institute as a ‘Centre of Excellence in Cancer Care’.

So the decision was made; my wife would be taken to the Cancer Institute for treatment not because it was less expensive but because we were assured that the hospital is totally dedicated to providing top rate diagnostic facilities and focused treatment for all types of cancer, irrespective of whether the patient is poor or rich. I also learnt that Dr.Shantha continued to take active interest in running the hospital and that we would be in safe hands. Our experience with the Institute laid to rest all our early apprehensions.

The hospital has two wings. The main building is where thousands of poor patients are provided free consultation. There is another wing called the Madhuram Narayanan (M&N) Block where patients paying for the services are given appointments to meet the consultant doctors. This wing also has well-appointed air-conditioned rooms for the use of patients requiring hospitalisation, provided at reasonable costs.

A team of top medical oncologists provide consultation to all the patients – paying or free. All the doctors are down to earth, practical and are friendly. No patient or attendant is allowed to throw his weight around using his/ her position or power. At no stage do you get the feeling that you are being exploited. Besides this, as it is a speciality hospital totally devoted to cancer, only relevant tests are conducted.

The Cancer Institute has the best of Diagnostic testing facilities in the country which are available for both paying and non-paying patients. Testing facilities are common for both types. This is the only place where paying patients have to rub shoulders with non-paying patients and where I saw some discrimination – the former get priority over the latter, if there is a long queue for a particular test.

Two other areas where I found the hospital distinctly different from the exploitative five-star hospitals are in their methods of treatment and financial dealings. All the tests we had conducted on my wife conclusively proved that her disease was not curable. It was only a question of time. Three of the consultant doctors told us that though special and highly priced injections are now available they would not recommend them because the effort would be futile. At best her life span could be extended by a couple of months but with all the pain and misery associated with the disease. So they decided to give her only palliative treatment which would keep her comfortable with much less side effects associated with aggressive treatment.

The second area is the payment system – this is where the five-star hospitals make you feel miserable. Not only do you have to pay a sizeable advance to such hospitals before any kind of tests are conducted but you have to keep topping up the balance constantly to ensure that the tests and treatment are conducted without interruption. On the other hand at the Cancer Institute, apart from paying consultant fee for the first time there were no further consultant fees. If it was a continuous process running for a couple of days then the cash department made a note of the doctor’s diagnostic prescriptions to your account but provided you a final bill only at the time of discharge. There was no question of treatment and tests being stopped for want of a balance in your account.

Considering the large number of patients handled by the hospital and apparent pressures on the administrative staff, I found the established systems and procedures worked very well and every single patient was attended to every day. There was a method in the madness. There was hope and a positive attitude among the hundreds of patients and their attendants waiting patiently in the reception area.

In spite of the huge turnout of poorer patients visiting the facilities, I found the hospital being well-maintained. The entire sprawling campus was clean and even the wards meant for free patients were neat and tidy.

Though my wife passed away in the seventh month from the date of being diagnosed with terminal cancer, my family and I thanked the team of dedicated doctors at the Institute and the staff, for doing their best under the circumstances, never ever making us regret for having gone to the Cancer Institute instead of the five-star hospital. The family, however, was hoping that a miracle would save my wife. It was not to be. She left this world surrounded by her near and dear ones. Her time had come.

I had sent this part of my article to Dr.Shantha, who was very happy with it and shared it with all her staff members including the doctors. Subsequently, whenever I met her at meetings where she was being honoured or was a guest speaker she would recognise me by my name. I used to feel humbled. She was truly an inspirational human being who was humility personified.

An incident that happened last year only made my respect for her go up by several notches.

My eldest grandson was diagnosed with thyroid cancer just a few months before he was proceeding to the USA in 2014 for his under-graduation studies at Purdue University. He survived because of timely treatment and went on to complete his graduation in 2019. He wrote a very humorous article, as a cancer survivor, living in a new country without anyone close to him to provide physical and moral support. It gave a detailed description of his experiences with the dreaded disease and how he managed to face it with grit and determination. The article, posted on Facebook, was full of positivity. I sent it to Dr.Shantha for possible use by her in her communication to cancer patients. A few weeks later I was surprised to find the story published in the ‘Open page’ feature of The Hindu. I had not sent it to them. I found out that it was Dr. Shantha who had done so to ensure a wider coverage of the message that my grandson was trying to convey in his article. I had no words to express my admiration for this dedicated warrior against Cancer.

May her great soul rest in peace!

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