Indian hospital turns 100
Dhamtari Christian Hospital celebrates anniversary with fireworks and singingby DeVonna R. Allison of Mennonite Mission Network
The night air in downtown Dhamtari reverberated with energetic singing, the sharp crack of fireworks and shouts in Hindi of "Hurray for Jesus Christ!" Shopkeepers and their customers were drawn from their shops to watch the lively candlelight procession pass down the street. It was Friday, November 12, 2010, and the crowd was celebrating the 100th anniversary of Dhamtari Christian Hospital, an institution founded by Mennonite mission workers.
Participants march during the Dhamtari Christian Hospital centennial celebration on Nov. 12, 2010. Photo by Dr. Mousam Jefferin.
Anna and Del Friesen, whose parents were workers in India with Mennonite Board of Missions, a predecessor agency to Mennonite Mission Network, from the 1940s through the 1970s, were among the revelers that night.
"Several hundred participants, including hospital staff and celebrants from the community and abroad started [the procession] from the hospital and walked for more than a mile to Sunderganj Mennonite Church, stopping traffic and attracting attention," Del Friesen said.
The gala continued for two more days on the extensive grounds of the hospital where staff hosted local and foreign visitors who arrived to take part in the festivities. There were worship services, feasts, recognition of retired staff, performances of dance, music and dramas, culminating with a tree-planting ceremony and the dedication of a new hospital chapel.
"Everyone, from student nurses who created scale models of the hospital buildings to the staff doctors and the hospital superintendent, contributed to the three-day event," Del Friesen said. One local man whose gravely ill wife was successfully treated at the hospital showed his gratitude by passing out candy during the celebration.
This festive atmosphere is a stark contrast to the conditions that greeted the first Mennonites in Dhamtari.
George Lambert arrived in India's Central Provinces in 1898 as the first relief worker sent by the Mennonite Church in America, a predecessor to Mennonite Church USA. Drought and crop failures in the region, coupled with the sell-off of India's valuable rice reserves by the ruling colonialists, had led to the starvation deaths of almost one million Indian people. When torrential rains returned to the parched land, widespread flooding contaminated drinking water sources. The resulting epidemics of cholera, small pox, dysentery and malaria brought the famine’s death toll to six million people.
As Lambert worked with the Indian people distributing grain and relief funds, he saw many opportunities for service. Upon returning home to the United States he reported on his work in India and highlighted the continuing need he’d witnessed. His report stirred the church leadership to action.
In March 1899, Dr. William Page, his wife Anna, and Jacob A. Ressler, workers from the Mennonite Evangelizing and Benevolent Board, arrived in Bombay [now Mumbai] to establish a mission presence in India. Travel was a grueling ordeal at that time, involving trains, ox carts and elephants crossing miles of developing road and rail systems. By 1900, a primitive mission station had been established by the Pages and Ressler, about 640 miles from Bombay on a plain near a government-maintained highway in Dhamtari.
Their primary goal was to help care for the many children orphaned by the famine, but as word spread that there was a doctor in Dhamtari, people came in droves. In six months, nearly 5,000 people received treatment in the dense shade of an 18-acre mango grove. Overwork combined with bouts of malaria strained Dr. Page's health, forcing him to return home with his family. By then it was clear the mission station needed a hospital.
For the next 10 years Mennonite workers continued to arrive and serve in Dhamtari through the Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities, some dying while in service there. During this time they procured land, built housing, had a well dug, and organized orphanages and schools and a place of worship. Eighteen Mennonite men and women and their children lived and worked among the Indian people, establishing a presence of care.
In October 1910, Dr. Christian David Esch and his wife, Mina Esch, were commissioned as medical missionaries to India and in November 1910 they arrived in Dhamtari. North American Mennonite mission workers continued to serve and train Indian health care professionals at Dhamtari into the 1980s as the hospital and nursing school were gradually transferred to the care and responsibility of the Medical Board of the Mennonite Church in India.
From its humble beginnings treating patients in bamboo huts in a mango grove, Dhamtari Christian Hospital today boasts a modern 375-bed hospital equipped with many of the latest diagnostic equipment and treatment options. The hospital, whose motto is "To Serve and Not to Be Served," offers a 24-hour trauma and emergency room, surgery, an intensive care unit, pathology department, pediatric care/vaccination clinic, a pharmacy, dental services, and an eye clinic. In addition, the hospital grounds contain a school of nursing, lodging for all students and permanent staff and a new chapel, dedicated at the centennial celebration. And, as Dr. Sunil Chatterjee, current Superintendant, pointed out, the hospital is completely self-supporting, due in large part to the College and School of Nursing.
"Our nurses [upon graduation] are much in-demand at other hospitals all over the country because they know [the nurses from here] receive quality training," he said. "They are the backbone of the care here."
While nursing school tuition is a vital source of income for the hospital, the hospital provides scholarships to needy students with the agreement that they work at the hospital for one year after graduation to pay off their debt, interest-free.
The North American Mennonite workers, who Dr. Chatterjee calls "pioneers," continue to be a source of inspiration, he said.
"The sacrifice and dedication of the missionaries has motivated us. They said it was the love of Christ which constrained them [to serve the Indian people] ... the work in the cities has changed a lot but one thing is the same, the desire, 'to serve and not to be served' with the same compassion and love and to share [that goal] with the next generation."
As for plans for the hospital’s future, Dr. Chatterjee said there is room for expansion. Among the services current staff would like to see offered are a neo-natal intensive care unit for the care and treatment of newborn infants, an expanded cardiac unit, an MRI machine (currently they outsource) and a school of medicine where future doctors can receive the same high-quality training that is currently available at the nursing school.
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