Healing a Village


June 17, 2005

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Roger Burks  </span>
    Pramila Subba serves a Chewribotay's paramedic, and is the only medical professional in her area. Photo: Roger Burks/Mercy Corps Photo: Roger Burks

Chewribotay, India - When she's with her friends, 20 year-old Pramila Subba is like many other young people her age. She makes breezy conversation, catches up on village gossip and laughs a lot.

When she opens her paramedic's bag and gets out the tools of her trade, though, Pramila's countenance noticeably changes. She's all business.

Often, life is no laughing matter in Chewribotay, India, the tiny mountainside village where Pramila lives. Situated in the remote Indian foothills of the Himalayas, Chewribotay is in an isolated region far from even the most basic health services.

Pramila is the only paramedic - in fact, the only health professional - for an hour in any direction. When families in the area need medical advice, information or treatment, they come to Pramila's tiny house, which also serves as her office.

She's been serving in this role since November 2004, when she was chosen by Mercy Corps' Community Health and Advancement Initiative (CHAI) Project. The project, which was launched in January 2003 with the backing of Oregon-based Tazo Tea Company and implemented through local partner DEG, exists to improve rural families' livelihoods by ensuring reliable health services, improved education, cleaner water and better access to community officials.

After meeting the criteria for the paramedic program, which includes full literacy and a firm commitment to serving her community, Pramila went through a three-month intensive paramedic training in Darjeeling, the district capital where the CHAI Project is headquartered. She returns to Darjeeling every month for additional training and meetings with other rural paramedics.

In an average month, Pramila sees about 30 patients. She's consulted well over 300 patients since taking this position.

"I see a lot of fever, anemia, diarrhea and dehydration in patients," Pramila said. "If their illness is too severe for me to treat here, I refer them to clinics in the larger towns."

A commitment to serve

Pramila's work is impressive in many ways. Chief among these reasons is the fact that she serves as Chewribotay's paramedic while also attending the local technical school, where she is one of the only female students.

Another testament to Pramila's commitment is that she volunteers to be the area's paramedic - she receives no compensation for the position, other than medical equipment and supplies provided to her by the CHAI Project. (In the near future, CHAI plans to provide a stipend to meet some of the rural paramedics' living expenses.)

"Pramila is energetic and knowledgeable, a real resource and asset to this community," said Dr. Sanjay Gurung, CHAI's Project Manager.

Gurung described one of Pramila's recent visits to Darjeeling to address a CHAI event attended by project staff, local dignitaries and donors from the United States.

"When it came time for Pramila to address the group, she came up onstage somewhat nervously, and without notes. A few of us were worried," Gurung said. "When she began speaking, though, she was incredibly eloquent and engaging. During her five-minute presentation, all off the top of her head, she completely wowed the audience."

Pramila Subba is certainly a rare find and a valuable ambassador for Mercy Corps and CHAI in this area of India.

When asked about her future as a paramedic, a smile once again comes to Pramila's face.

"I feel like the CHAI Project has given a lot to the community," she said. "For me, this job is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to lead and help my own people.

"It's been very empowering."