Renuka Ramakrishnan’s journey into serving leprosy affected people started when she was in her high school. At the age of 16, she stood as a lone warrior against the odds of a conservative society in Kumbakonam to cremate an abandoned body of a leprosy affected person. That determination never faded away even a droplet. Renuka has been serving in the field of leprosy for more than 30years now. Even during the Covid-19 lockdown she has treated about 5000 patients online and sent medicines to them free of cost. She has received 154 awards across the world but that doesn’t stop her from continuing the good work. Infact, it has only motivated her to keep serving the society.

When and how did the thought of helping out people come about?
At the age of 16, I was walking on the roadside and saw a crowd before Mahamaham Kulam in Kumbakonam. The crowd was closing their mouths and noses I wondered what happened so I peeped into the crowd and saw a naked dead body floating in the pond and it was stinking badly. But my instinct told that I should do something so I just took my dupatta and covered the private part of the body and with the help of few people I buried the body which is against our costumes. Later I realised that the dead person is a leprosy patient and many people in Kumbakonam were affected by leprosy. Few people asked me, that will the diseases spread to us? I said “No, leprosy is not a communicable disease or infectious to others.”

What was the inspiration behind your helping hands?
The determination and courage came from my father; he was a Lieutenant Colonel and most of my family members were from an army background. My father gave me the courage to do what I wanted and my mother breastfed me with love, care and compassion. At the age of eight in a fancy-dress competition at school, I dressed up as a leprosy patient and won the first prize for it with my Dad’s encouragement. Of course, everybody was shocked to see a little child’s acting skills as a leprosy patient. I think that soaked in my mind.

Where did you study?
I studied in Holy Angels School at Salem then moved to Sarada Vidyalaya for high School and I was state second in English subject at 12th standard. Later we moved to my birthplace Kumbakonam. My college days were spent at Jawaharlal Institute of Postgraduate Medical Education and Research (JIPMER) Pondicherry. I’m the only girl to dress in Pavadai thavani (Indian traditional attire) with two plates, just like a typical Kumbakonam girl.

How did you manage to execute your ideas?
Execution part is always a difficult one. During my post-graduationI started working for leprosy hospital which helped me to get to know more about the leprosy patient. My intention is to reduce the number of cases and find a vaccine for leprosy. During this I also got two offers from my parents, one was to go aboard for higher studies and another was to get married. I chose the second one and got married to an understanding husband and in-laws.

What was your contribution to the leprosy patient?
At St.Thomas hospital, Chetpet during my initial days I was a medical officer in the department of dermatology and leprosy but I took up general medical officer duty in night shifts, where I treated emergency cases like heart attack, snake bite cases and learnt more. Also, with that money, I used to spend on leprosy patient’s children education and family provisions. I started working for school children to create awareness among them and I found out more cases were among the school children. My aim was to find the cases in early detection and treat them. I treated many cases all over Chennai city. I have also treated people from Irular tribal community at Javadi hills and created awareness for them. I used to travel to Javadi hills every month to check on their treatment progression. Simultaneously I was also treating leprosy and HIV among Srilankan refugees.

Tell us about the awards which are close to your heart?
I have received 154 awards till date including international awards. I received an award from my uncle Iraiarasan in 2013 along with my husband which is much more special for me. We have a charitable trust called Mangalam where we do many services, which includes construction of police stations and bus shelter in Thiruvanamalai, which was built by my husband. We also have a school there and through Rotary eye camps, we have helped many other camps in the surrounding 15 villages. Our village is called Mangalam which is at Polur and the same has been named after our charitable trust. We have smart labs in our school with about 20 computers for the lab. We have a site there and are planning to build clinics with 24 hours doctors. I lost my mother-in-law due to no availability of any proper hospital facilities. Some of the awards I’ve won are…

• Medical Excellence Award 2018 in Social Service Received from Honourable Governor of Tamilnadu.
• Life time Achievement “Amma Award 2018” for exemplary service from Tamilnadu Government.
• Humanitarian Doctor Award from Health Secretary Tamilnadu Government 2018.
• “Mother Teresa Award 2016” for Social service in the field of medicine.
• Rajiv Gandhi Gold Star Millennium Award 2016.
• Gandhi Mandala, Bravo award 2020.

Awards or rewards are not going to change my attitude towards life. My advice to the young doctors would be “doctors should be one among the people. Don’t see them as a patient but your family member. Always be humble to people, awards will be with you until you are alive on this earth, what we have done for people matters.”

How do you balance your personal and professional life with your social work?
Full credit goes to my in-laws and husband. My mother-in-law was very fond of me serving leprosy patients, though she was from a very conservative background and not much educated but still she managed to support me. I have two children – my son supports the family business and my daughter is just like me. She loves serving for children and now she is a paediatrician. I’m sure my legacy will not end with me.

What are your future plans?
Every person should have a healthy mind, soul and body. My plan is to integrate human system together. I’m planning to have a centre but not an old-age home or orphanage. I also don’t want anybody to be on roadside. I want people to have family which doesn’t give an orphanage like feel to anyone. I would love to build 10-20 houses for people with the support of government. Loneliness kills people especially during this lockdown many people were ready to commit suicide and we saved many lives. My aim is that nobody should feel left out and all the lonely people should come together and live together.

Would you like to share a memorable moment with us?
When I was treating leprosy patients I used to visit, I had come across a blind lady. When I touched her feet to treat her foot ulcer she recognised me and asked me “doctor amma coffee sapuduringala?” (Doctor, would you like to have some coffee) I also had coffee with her and it’s always close to my heart.

— By Vinitha Venkatesha