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Tribute to Dr V Shanta

Left her footprints in the sands of time

Competence. Commitment. Courage. Compassion. Integrity. Determination. Dr V Shanta was a rare amalgam of all these qualities. 

So, it was no surprise that even as a young doctor, she readily responded to the call of visionary  Dr  Muthulakshmi Reddy, to work for the treatment of cancer and the establishment of a Cancer Hospital in Chennai.  Those were the initial years of post-Independence India, when the institutional infrastructure for health care and medical treatment of even ordinary diseases was rudimentary.  In this context, a Cancer Hospital was considered a quixotic – almost laughable – proposition. But the pioneers were a determined lot.  Dr Shanta, along with her mentor Dr V Krishnamurthy, threw herself into this work with tremendous enthusiasm.  Brick by brick, the two of them built a cancer treatment facility in Chennai.  From a cottage facility, it now stands tall as a centre of excellence with 535 beds in two campuses – the main campus in Gandhi Nagar and the Annexe on Sardar Patel Road.  There were a number of people in governments and pubic life, who helped. Equally, there were quite a few who frustrated them at every step. Obstacles only strengthened their resolve to forge ahead. 

Today’s research, tomorrow’s treatment…

In addition to the hospital, there is a well respected Research Wing, whose mission set by Dr Krishnamuthy was: today’s research, tomorrow’s treatment.  And it has a college only for super-specialties in the treatment of cancer.  Recognising that prevention is always better than cure, Dr Shanta set up extensive Outreach programmes.  The establishment of a comprehensive Cancer Registry is one of her many outstanding contributions to the field of cancer treatment.

Dr Shanta spread the message of hope that cancer is curable if detected early. And she seriously worked to remove the stigma attached to the disease.  She was particularly irked at the pejorative use of the word cancer to describe objectionable practices. eg. Corruption is a cancer that is eating into the vitals of the body politic.  She wrote open letters to anyone who said or wrote such things and asked them not to do these  again.

Compassion was the defining characteristic of Dr Shanta and her mentor.  Their principal objective in setting up this cancer facility was to provide high quality treatment for the poor and disadvantaged. Only 40 per cent of the beds are paying beds.  About 40 per cent of the patients are treated totally free of cost. And the remaining patients are highly subsidised.  But the quality of treatment is the same for all.  Dr Shanta knew that a few people abused the system by understating their income, but magnanimously chose to ignore that. 

Funds sought her…

In the initial years, funds were a constraint.  But as her stature grew, funds sought her.  And she was proud of the fact that a significant portion of the donations received were from ordinary people. That was the public’s homage to a noble soul.

Awards and honors – national and international – were showered on her.  There was a role reversal though. The awards gained stature, not the awardee.

 –Dr R Swaminathan, IAS (Retd)

As the poet sang, she made her life sublime and departing left behind her footprints in the sands of time.

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