Padma Shri doctor from Chennai plays Good Samaritan for poor cancer patients in Assam

When he relocated from his hometown, Chennai, to settle down in the Northeast back in 2007, Ravi Kannan’s parents and in-laws thought it was a crazy idea to move to a place known more for “militancy, bomb blasts and floods.”

His friends termed the decision as “professional hara-kiri.”

But Padma Shri awardee Dr Ravi Kannan and his wife Seeta Kannan felt “there was a greater need for them to make the sacrifice of leaving home and serving poor and needy cancer patients in Assam.”

Dr Ravi Kannan.

They did not look back thereafter, and moved with a simple and positive mindset to see things fall in place after a few years.

Dr Kannan, a surgical oncologist, is now the director of the Cachar Cancer Hospital and Research Centre (CCHRC) in Silchar. He and his medical team have transformed things gradually, busting myths about cancer being incurable and expensive. They have made treatment affordable to over 20,000 patients every year, and more importantly, empowered their attendants with ad-hoc jobs on campus.

In an exclusive conversation with EastMojo, Dr Kannan recalled the moment in 2007. “My wife, Seeta, the regional officer with the United States India Educational Foundation in Chennai, resigned from her job. She convinced our parents that, despite the odds stacked against us, there is a lot of need for us to be there for the cancer patients in the hospital. There were many challenges back then before the Cachar Cancer Hospital Society (as the centre was known then).”

“Many patients had very advanced diseases, they were poor, addicted to tobacco/alcohol, and most of them were malnourished…worse still, we did not have the resources, whether financial, human or logistics. There were only 20 beds with a staff strength of just 23. So much so that people used to stand in a crowd in the corridor,” he says.

Dr Kannan, who had worked at the Adyar Cancer Institute in Chennai for 15 years before moving to Silchar, candidly said that administration, finance, and business planning were alien concepts to him then.

The Vice President, Shri Mohd. Hamid Ansari presenting the 16th Mahaveer Award to Dr. R. Ravi Kannan of Silchar, Assam for Excellence in the sphere of Medicine, in New Delhi on June 04, 2013.

“Nobody teaches these aspects in medical schools……when I tell people now about what we have done at the hospital, they think as if we had a game plan then….but the truth is that we have been fire-fighting….whenever we have had to face problems, we put in place processes which worked.”

The Cachar Cancer Hospital and Research Centre now has 140 beds, sophisticated surgical infrastructure for all kinds of surgeries, and a dedicated medical team of 400 doctors, nurses and staff.

In a testament to Dr Kannan and his team, the follow-up ratio of the hospital is more than 90 per cent today. Under his supervision, the hospital, among other developments, also saw its first microvascular surgery for a cancer patient in 2012, a first for the Northeast.

Sharing his success mantra, Dr Kannan says, “It is about introducing pro-poor policies. (If) You treat patients for free, they will all come to the hospital …This was the case in Chennai.”

“But at the cancer hospital in Silchar, we found that despite providing accommodation, food and low-cost treatment, not even 30 per cent of the patients were completing treatment. Subsequent findings helped us know that many of these patients were daily wagers. So we put in place a system of providing ad-hoc employment for attendants on campus,” he says.

“Besides, we started communicating with the patients’ families, opened satellite clinics near their homes, started home care services, and introduced the concept of a one-time payment for OPD and then for the rest of their lives no further payment…Thereafter, we could see things transform…patients coming to the hospital to complete their treatment…we realised that a small change impacts in a big way,” he adds.

In contrast, “in the beginning it was difficult. We did not know from where the next month’s salaries would come. But touchwood, we have never defaulted on salary payments till this day,” he recalls.

Regarding the funding, Dr Kannan says, “Earlier, it used to be from what we were earning and the donations received annually for day-to-day hospital management. Then, after a few years, public sector undertakings, banks and charitable organisations, and the state government provided immense support.”

Dr Kannan’s patients see him as no less than a messiah. 

“I feel that he has ably served and treated cancer patients in the hospital over the years. I have been treated by him for three years for prostate cancer and am now on the road to recovery. He has made the patients secure and pay follow-up visits religiously, thanks to his humane approach,” Kalyan Chakraborty, a 74-year-old patient told EastMojo.

Asked how satisfying has the 15-year-old Assam sojourn been, the Padma Shri doctor says with a sense of accomplishment, “We are blessed with a great team…we have been a close-knit community, and so things happened as we wanted. Looking back, it feels good to be able to make a difference in the lives of people when we see poor cancer patients getting cured.”

Dr Ravi Kannan’s partner Seeta Kannan has too played a valuable role in this journey. When asked about her impression of Assam and the Northeast in general, Seeta Kannan said she did not have much idea about the region a few years before taking the crucial decision.

“But when we eventually came to Silchar, we, including my daughter, were taken around the town and introduced to the people by the Cachar Cancer Society and we found that they were very friendly. Now, having lived here for 15 years, I can say for sure that people here are very kind, supportive and hospitable,” Seeta told EastMojo.

Speaking about the road for stakeholders to curb high cancer rates in the Northeast, Kannan says, “All of us have to work in tandem towards reducing the consumption of tobacco, alcohol and areca nuts, which is the principal reason why the region has the highest incidence of cancer cases in the country….The government, hospitals, NGOs, doctors, the community, society at large must come together in their efforts to prevent cancer.”

In 2018, the Assam government and the Tata Trusts collaborated to set up comprehensive cancer care centres across the state.

“The development augurs well and says a lot that more good can be done in the healthcare sector if the government and non-government organisations come together to provide extensive and comprehensive cancer care,” he said.

He further said the focus should largely be on preventing diseases through sensitisation campaigns rather than spending more on infrastructure.

“Prevention is not as expensive as treatment. More so, when you prevent a disease, you do not have to treat any disease. We need to know that cancer is curable, but more importantly, preventable. So when you prevent cancer, you prevent other non-communicable diseases, and promote health in the community…….health promotion is a national responsibility,” Dr Kannan adds.

The medical fraternity in the state is all praise for the Kannan family.

Speaking to EastMojo, Dr Rathin Bhuyan, director, health services, Assam, lauded Dr Kannan’s for his immense contributions to cancer treatment in the state and his supreme sacrifice of coming to Barak Valley from south India.

“Back in 2007, there was a great need for cancer specialists in the state. So his philanthropic services deserve more praise, and the Padma Shri honour is a token of appreciation of his benevolence and sacrifice. Here, it was not about settling down in a place cut off from mainstream Assam, not to mention the country, and adjusting to new languages,” Dr Bhuyan said.

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