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Sept./Oct. response: Vellore Christian Medical College Hospital, India

Nursing scholars embark upon inspiring and compassionate journeys.

by Nile Sprague and  Mary Beth Coudal

Visitors patiently line up at the Christian Medical College (CMC) Hospital in Vellore, India, preparing to board crowded elevators to care for their loved ones. In the chapel, worshipers sing hymns. Thanks to the scholarship support from United Women in Faith and our predecessors, in other areas, dozens of nursing students take notes as they learn to sterilize equipment, practice their injection skills on dummies, educate rural communities on healthy living, and take care of the healing of thousands of patients. 

In 2023, through the United Women in Faith partnership with the CMC, over 40 nursing and medical scholarships were given to students who demonstrated the most need, compassion, and merit. Among these scholars,16 medical students, 28 nursing scholars, and four partial scholarships (two senior training and two pediatric fellows) received financial support.

According to the International Council of Nurses, the lack of skilled nurses has reached the level of global health emergency. United Women in Faith, as usual, has stepped in quietly, without fanfare, to care for and empower women and help those who need it most, wherever they may be, partnering with a hospital known for its outstanding research, service, and education. 

A special place

In their pink uniforms, scholarship recipients train with nursing teachers using a hi-tech robotic mannequin at the College of Nursing, Christian Medical College, Vellore.

The health center sprawls across several campuses. For example, in Bagayam, where students, guests, and staff of the CMC Hospital reside, the setting is somewhat bucolic. On a recent spring day, excitement abounded as birders caught a glimpse of a spotted owlet. 

As one enters the main campus in the center of the city of Vellore, the first building one encounters is the chapel. In the midst of all of the hustle and bustle of the city and the hospital, the chapel bestows a sense of calm. Prayers and music ring out at all times of the day, offering comfort. “Jesus is being shared through Bible passages, Scripture. That is such a consolation,” Deepika Srivastava, director of church relations, Vellore Christian Medical College Foundation, says.

The CMC in Vellore began as a 40-bed hospital. Founded in 1902 by missionaries, the hospital has historically treated those marginalized by society, including people with leprosy. Ida Scudder, a surgeon, missionary, and the hospital’s founder, began by training 17 young women in nursing, a first-of-its-kind opportunity. In the early 1900s, Scudder began the public health ministry, setting up roadside dispensaries, caring for thousands in rural villages.

In the 21st century, when COVID-19 hit India like a tsunami, several of the hospital’s virologists and doctors led the charge in containing and battling the unyielding and morphing global virus in one of the world’s most populated and densest countries. For more than 100 years, the hospital has been on the cutting edge of care for those who need it most. 

Build on compasion

In India, where approximately 2 percent of the people self-identify as Christian, 90 percent of the doctors at the medical college are Christian. The health complex, a beacon of healing and hope, is a modern facility, sprawling across campuses and clinics, that serves 10,000 people a day. Along with the enormity of the care given is an abundance of compassion.  

Journalist Sujata Srinivasan from the U.S. shared the story of her mother’s care at the hospital after an automobile accident several years ago. Srinivasan’s mother hovered for several weeks between life and death. Yet, every interaction, she says, was graced with an undercurrent of patience and empathy. “I had never before encountered empathy as an institutional culture. The humanization of medicine is not just a mirror of our social character, of how we, as a society, accord value to our fellow human beings; research shows that empathy from caregivers leads to better health outcomes while reducing health-care costs.”

The hospital does not turn away anyone who seeks care and doesn’t have the means to pay; the hospital, charging less than most in India, uses funds from paying patients for those without the capacity to pay. This generosity and empathy of the hospital culture extends to the training and funding of nursing students as well.

Profiles of scholars

Most of the nursing scholarship recipients were exceedingly surprised and grateful for funding from United Women in Faith. After applying, Aleena Benny was elated to discover she would receive financial support, calling the scholarship “a blessing.” Benny calls the medical college “a wonderful place of plenty.” Among the plentiful opportunities she lists the diversity of cultures, the extracurriculars, and—perhaps most importantly—the marriage of practical and theoretical ways of learning. 

Nursing students practice their medical skills outside of the hospital’s walls. Spilling into the countryside, students visit homes, schools, clinics, and town squares to educate and monitor daily health needs.  

Deena Denny, one such United Women in Faith scholar, travels miles from her hospital classroom to treat local folks who have no access to clinics. Denny is a big-hearted nursing student, who dreamed of studying nursing and bringing health and healing to remote regions after her father’s death when she was a teen. At that time, due to her own experience, she realized that there were regions of India without any medical care. 

As for the school’s diversity, Benny is learning Tamil, the regional language of the state of Tamil Nadu, where the college is located, to better communicate with patients. Many people in the rural regions are part of the indigenous populations of India, commonly identified as tribal. 

Benny appreciates that every state in India is represented among the school’s nursing scholars. The students share their regional and cultural heritage. For example, to destress from the hectic studying and work schedule, Benny practices classical dance and choreography. When recently interviewed, she was preparing to share her dance for the celebration of college days. She thinks she might choose a specialty of pediatrics and maternity. After graduation, she looks forward to the three years of service that the college requires. She is most grateful for the scholarship because nursing is perceived as “the most important profession” by her immediate family, many of whom are nurses. 

With singing, skits, and information, Denny provides training in anemia prevention and how to counteract other community health risks in nearby villages. She uses creative skills to share messages of health with the tribal people in the rural communities who, indeed, have shortened life expectancies for a variety of reasons, including lack of access to medical care, exposure to infectious diseases and undernutrition, and tobacco and alcohol abuse. Improving lives is no easy task as it requires a multipronged effort, which the nurses from the Christian medical college address with patience, optimism, and good humor. Most importantly, they ameliorate the community’s limited access to health care. When the roots of inequality, discrimination, and social injustice are addressed, people in tribal communities have an opportunity to live healthier lives.

Prospective medical personnel are admitted into this highly competitive program at the Vellore medical college based partially on their passion for service. One such nursing student is Feba Johnson, who, like Denny, lost her father in her teens. She wanted to become a doctor to make her mother, a nurse, proud. However, she felt called to the nursing school as a step toward her beloved medical degree. 

A fourth-year scholar, Johnson recalls how receiving the scholarship in her first year has allowed her to grow, discovering a love for work in obstetrics, gynecology, and maternity. She has worked in delivery rooms. “When it is a high-risk pregnancy and we have a successful delivery, it is a good feeling,” Johnson explains. 

As for the future, when she completes her studies, Johnson says, “I would like to help those people, those children like me, who were cared for by a single mother, especially those from the low and middle classes.” 

Small and mighty gifts

Johnson, Benny, and Denny’s studies are emblematic of the kind of scholars supported in 2022 by United Women in Faith, which provided approximately 137 scholarships to students in the U.S. and around the world, totaling close to $400,000.

“Thank you for supporting us,” says Benny. 

Your undesignated Mission Giving undergirds scholarship projects such as the one at Vellore CMC, wherein scholars are putting faith, hope, and love into the places where they are needed most. 

Nile Sprague is a California-based photojournalist. Mary Beth Coudal is a writer and teacher in New York City.

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