Dr Ravi Kannan
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A brief biography
Manila : A Philippine university professor who became a peace negotiator and helped ease decades of Muslim insurgency violence in her country and an Indian doctor, who chose to work in a far-flung rural region to reach poor cancer patients desperately in need of medical help were among those who won this year’s Ramon Magsaysay Awards — regarded as Asia’s version of the Nobel Prize.
The other winners announced on Thursday were a London-educated lawyer who turned away from a life of privilege in Bangladesh to lead a movement providing education to poor children and an East Timor farmer, who uses his songs to campaign for food security and environmental protection.
Ravi Kannan, a surgical oncologist, left a key post in the Adyar Cancer Institute, a major cancer treatment facility in Chennai, to work and live in the Northeast, where access to medical care was difficult.In 2007, he led the Cachar Cancer Hospital and Research Centre, a small hospital with a staff of just 23 that would later considerably expand and employ more than 450 personnel under his leadership. It now provides free or subsidised cancer treatments to about 5,000 new patients a year.
Kannan said the award is not about him but for all those who have contributed to cancer care in the community. The award belongs to all the people who have joined hands to make lives of cancer-sufferers better, he said.
A brief history
IN 2007, Dr Ravi Kannan left his life in Chennai behind to take over as director of a small charitable cancer hospital started by a group of locals in far-away Silchar, Assam. As the hospital and its list of patients grew over the years, so did word of the surgical oncologist’s work, and on Thursday, he was announced as one of the four winners of the Ramon Magsaysay Award this year.
When those running the Cachar Cancer Hospital Society first got in touch with Dr Kannan, he was heading the department of surgical oncology at Adyar Cancer Institute in Chennai. The then director of the Cachar hospital, Dr Chinmoy Choudhury, would visit the Institute to observe and pick up practices and would refer patients to him. Then, Dr Kannan said, when he left his job at the Chennai institute, “one thing led to another” and they offered him the position of Director at the Cachar hospital.
“My wife Seeta flatly said no, because we knew the region only for bomb blasts and militancy. But they were persistent and wrote multiple letters, and so we finally visited together… During that visit, we truly felt there was a lot of need to serve the cancer patients there. So, my wife left her job with the United States India Educational Foundation and we moved here,” he said, adding that the support of his family “is the only reason I am here”.
At the time, the hospital, which started in 1996, was operating with a staff of 23, with some 1,200-odd patients every year. But Dr Kannan gradually observed something that made him concerned: very few of the patients would come back for treatment.
“The patients of the hospital were all very poor and I came to the institution with the idea that we should provide free treatment to everyone. But even though the cost of treatment was low, patients were still not coming back. It took me quite some time to realise that they were simply afraid to come to hospitals. Over time, we put in place a series of measures to make sure that patients were supported to accept treatment,” he said.
Another factor was that many patients or their attendants were daily-wage labourers, and a day at the hospital meant a day without pay.
“Unless we sustained their daily earnings, how would they keep coming back? So we introduced ad hoc jobs for attendants, which started with a wage of Rs 30 per day and have now become Rs 300, along with food for the caregiver. Because they are not skilled workers, it is unskilled employment such as some work to be done in the garden and so on,” he said.
Another step was to try and reduce recurring costs — while there used to be a monthly OPD charge, it was substituted with a one-time OPD charge at the start of treatment with no further charges for the rest of a patient’s lifetime.
Today, the hospital has around 5,000 new patients and 30,000 follow-up patients every year, of whom roughly 90% are financially assisted in their treatment.
“Each time we would introduce a new step, we would think of it as a game changer. But now I know better and each is just a confidence booster and a step to keep working towards our goals… When I first joined, I had no idea of administration, economics, or anything really of how to run a hospital. I just had an idea of what a cancer centre should look like but no proper idea of implementation. So, we learnt on the job. We would troubleshoot, put in place a process and move on, and that is how it continues to be till date,” he said.
What his patient Jagabandhu Talukdar (65) remembers though is a doctor who gave him conviction that he would live. A now-retired government school teacher from Nalbari, he had been treated by Dr Kannan in Chennai for oral cancer in 2004. However, his cancer was back in 2010.
“I was so depressed at that time. I found that he was now in Silchar and went to meet him. He counselled me, told me not to fear and gave me a guarantee that I would be cured. I had my operation there that year. The cancer hasn’t returned since then but I go to Silchar every December, not just for a check up but also to meet and catch up with him,” he said.
When the Cachar Cancer Hospital started, there was only one cancer institute in all of Assam – the Dr B Borooah Cancer Institute in Guwahati, nearly 300 km from Silchar, which is located in the Barak Valley. A group of concerned citizens of the town formed the Cachar Cancer Hospital Society in 1992.
“It was a people’s project to make a cancer hospital in this poor and underprivileged area and we started very modestly. We went from door to door, collecting five rupees here and two rupees there. We finally managed some money and started the construction for our building in 1994. That is how we started. Our hospital came into the map of India when Dr Kannan won the Padma Shri Award in 2020, and now with the Magsaysay Award, it is at an Asia level. We are very happy and very proud of him,” said Nilmadhab Das, general secretary of the Society and one of its founding members.
“He came to one of the corner-most parts of the country, to offer his services in an under-developed area. When he joined, apart from the B Borooah Institute, there was nothing else. Even the private hospitals came up later. He is a very philanthropic person and a very good surgeon,” said Dr Anup Barma, Director of Medical Education in Assam.
Now in Silchar for 16 years, when asked how much longer he envisions him and his family remaining there, Dr Kannan said, “I have never thought of going away.”