Pathanamthitta: Clad in a casual t-shirt and a khaki cargo pants, a man trudges deep into the dense forest. Entwined with a rosary, an identity card of the Seethathodu Primary Health Centre (PHC) sways on his person as he navigates through the boulders, rocks and the vast expanse of the jungle.
At the end of the trek, a happy lot greets him from a tribal hamlet roofed with blue tarpaulin -- his patients for the day.
Dr Vincent Xavier's weekly routine, since he first visited the tribal settlements of Seethathodu in Kerala's Pathanamthitta district two decades ago, had been similar.
The Medical Officer's visits to the the backward and tribal communities of Gavi, Angamoozhy and Moozhiyar for the past 21 years, earned him a title from the tribespeople -- 'Makka Doctor' or 'the doctor of our children'.
Dr Xavier, who recently won the Human Rights and Social Welfare Forum's 'Best Medical Practitioner in Health Care' award, is an epitome of selfless service to humanity.
From Tirunelveli Medical College to 'Makka doctor'
After graduating from Tirunelveli Medical College in 1991, Dr Vincent Xavier, a native of Nagercoil in Tamil Nadu, worked at a Mission Hospital for six years before reaching Seethathodu as Medical Officer through the Kerala Public Service Commission (PSC).
His wife Mini, a Thiruvananthapuram native, had tipped him about the lack of medical facilities and practitioners in the region.
“They were reluctant to accept my services in the beginning. Outsiders had duped them several times. But they eventually accepted me as their own,” Dr Xavier recounts the early days of his service.
Unlike the earlier doctors at Seethathodu who left in hurry intimidated by the terrain and the wild animals there, he stayed put at the tiny village with steadfast love and dedication.
Wild elephants and boars failed to dampen his commitment.
Sethathodu panchayat, the picturesque little village 23kms away from Pathanamthitta with 13 wards, has 90 per cent forest cover.
It provides safe dwelling to Malappandaram, Ulladan and Malakurava tribal communities. It also hosts Sri Lankan refugees, who landed here as part of the Sirimavo-Indira Gandhi pact of 1974.
“The tribals are generally a resilient community. Their healthy food habits and lifestyle have boosted their immunity. The isolation from the main stream is also a reason.”
“But their illnesses are likely to go unnoticed and intensify if left untreated,” he said.
The doctor's typical day begins at the Out Patient facility at the Seethathodu Public Health Centre.
But at least once a week, he leaves the comforts of his PHC to mount the hills of the Ward No3 in Seethathodu, Gavi, 70 km away.
“They are reluctant to leave the hills. So I visit them to ensure they're alright and give them the right medical advice,” the doctor said.
The doctor and his team visits the tribal settlements with basic equipment, medicines and proteins. A quick glance would also reveal some improbable items in the PHC's vehicle --biscuits, snacks and rations for the tribal hamlets.
Nights in the wild
In emergency cases, the doctor rushes to the tribal settlements irrespective of the time.
“Almost 10 years ago, I was summoned to visit a pregnant 18-year-old at midnight. She was bleeding profusely. We reached her home way past midnight. Fortunately, I was able to arrest the bleeding and tend to her. The delivery took place soon after,” the doctor recounted.
"The possibility of a slight delay that night would have risked more than one life."
But getting mobile tower signals are tricky in regions like Aanathodu, the doctor admits.
“Tribal women are generally reluctant to visit hospitals for pregnancy or delivery. Deliveries at homes with midwives are the common phenomenon here.”
“While it is impossible to force them to undertake an institutional delivery, we do the needful ensure their health,” he said.
A lady doctor visits the women to ensure timely check-ups and ante natal care.
They're given also given medicines and supplements required during pregnancy.
“The women here mostly suffer from anaemia due to the back-to-back deliveries,” the doctor said.
Family planning lessons have not had the desired effect on the community.
Covid-19 in Seethathodu
Under the guidance of Dr Xavier, the Seethathodu panchayat has effectively handled the pandemic situation. The panchayat boasts of a good vaccination rate. Though many families were hesitant to take the jab, the doctor coaxed them into taking the vaccine.
"Gavi has not reported many COVID-19 cases in the past 6 months," Dr Vincent says with a hint of pride that the ward is safe from the raging pandemic outside.
Seethathodu Primary Health Centre is Dr Vincent Xavier's life and work.
Though the chances to see his family in Nagercoil are limited to his weekly visits, he seldom complains.
In fact, he hopes to open a clinic in the area when he retires four years down the line. Unperturbed by the raging pandemic, lockdown and masks, Dr Vincent Xavier continues his journey braving the wild to meet the sons and daughters of the forest.