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15 minutes with . . .

A trustee of the Sanjeevini Trust charity

Authors: Helen Macdonald 

Publication date:  04 Apr 2009


T V Seshagiri talks about setting up a charity abroad

What made you decide to set up a charity?

Coming from India, I have always had an urge to give something back. My wife’s uncle had chronic renal failure, a renal transplant, and was on dialysis but was still working back in India. He was an inspiration, and when he died we wanted to do something in his memory. The final bit of inspiration came from watching the film Terry, about the fundraiser Terry Fox, who died from cancer and raised money for cancer research.

Had you done charity work before?

I had arranged a couple of cricket matches to raise funds for a bladder scanner, but nothing big. I am fairly sporty and used to play cricket and badminton for my university. At first, I thought I would just do some fundraising. I wanted to cycle from the northern to the southern tip of India. My father in law said no—he did not want his daughter widowed so young. So I started the charity instead.

What was the big idea?

It began in 2006. At first the plan was to offer free treatment to people with chronic renal failure. But when I spoke to my friend and colleague Professor Jaykumar, in Madras, he said, “Why not concentrate on prevention rather than treatment?” So the idea evolved into a chronic disease prevention programme.

There is a growing burden of chronic disease in India, part of an epidemiological transition. Until recently, India’s big health issues have been communicable diseases and nutritional, maternal, and perinatal conditions.

The idea is to go to a village and screen the population for hypertension, hypercholesterolaemia, and diabetes. A team of doctors, nurses, technicians, and administrative staff will visit the same village each year to repeat the screening. A smaller group will return at four to six week intervals to treat and monitor the conditions that are diagnosed.

We screened the first village, Bandikavanoor, 40 km outside Madras, last summer. And we have begun work in a village outside Bangalore.

There are other charities doing screening, but we are offering free management and follow-up. In that sense I would like to think that the Sanjeevini Trust is unique.

That is the project at local level, but we also want to raise awareness of conditions such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes in India as a whole. Last summer some family members and I cycled 630 miles (1022 km) around southern India. En route, we held meetings in temples, hospitals, and schools, and we talked to people at bus stops, in teashops, and in their homes. We educated people about chronic diseases and how to have a healthy lifestyle.

We have a similar trip planned from Bangalore to Pondicherry this summer. And in 2011 we are planning the cycle trip that I first imagined from Kashmir, the northern tip of India, to Kanyakumari, the southern tip—3500 km.

That sounds like a long way

We knew we had to do some of these crazy things to get media attention. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not publicity crazy, but, as a charity, we rely on it. The launch and cycle ride were covered in the Indian media last year. New Delhi TV did a three minute film about Sanjeevini and that has raised our profile.

What now?

There are three aspects to the project. Firstly, there is the fundraising. We have 20:20 cricket and badminton tournaments organised in the Midlands, a trek up Scafell Pike, a couple of weekend cycling tours, and a “Bollywood evening.”

Secondly, there are the follow-up clinics and awareness campaigns. My wife, Dr Ramya, and friend Dr Balraman coordinate that from India.

Lastly, there are the academic considerations. We will have a huge amount of data. This is an opportunity to compare south Asians in India with the US or UK populations.

We are also building an elective opportunity for medical students from the US and UK to join us cycling and in clinics. It will be a brilliant opportunity, not just academically, but coming with us into the teashops and people’s houses—that is not something we get to do often.

Tell me about the name of the charity

Sanjeevini is a plant found in the Aravalli mountain ranges and is meant to have healing properties. Its literal translation is “to infuse life.”

In one of the Hindu epics, Lord Rama is fighting the evil King Ravana. During the battle, King Rama’s brother Lakshmana lies fatally wounded with other soldiers. The monkey god Hanuman is despatched to fetch sanjeevini. Unable to locate the herb precisely, he uproots a whole mountain and brings it to the battlefield, and all of the soldiers are healed. A lot of health centres in India are named after the herb.

There is a personal significance to the story too, because my wife’s uncle was called Lakshmana, like the prince, and our charity is in his memory.

What qualities are needed to set up a charity?

You don’t need any special qualities to set up a charity—just willingness and commitment. It takes a lot of commitment. I probably work for four to five hours a day on the charity, and more at the weekends.

What is the hardest thing?

We needed to have someone in India looking after the charity full time, so my wife and our children, Eshwar and Bhoomi, moved to India last year. Being without the kids is the bit that I find the hardest.

What would you say to other doctors wanting to get into charity work?

I’m sure a lot of people think of something like this, but then put it off. There are always justifiable excuses like family or financial commitments.

Since I embarked on this adventure, I have met some amazing people, and I just wish I had done it earlier. Until you do it you don’t realise how much of a buzz it gives you, how bloody satisfying it is. Everything comes at a price. If you want to do it, just do it. You don’t want to be looking back in 20 years from today and saying, “If only I had.”

Name: Dr Seshagiri

Position: Staff grade urologist working at Manor Hospital in Walsall

Biography: Moved to the UK in 1993 after house jobs in Madras

Competing interests: None declared

Helen Macdonald editorial registrar, BMJ

 hmacdonald@bmj.com

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