Voluntary Health Services

Of the many hospitals in Adyar today, the one which has seen it change from a quiet estate of theosophy to a buzzing centre of modernism is Voluntary Health Services or VHS as it’s popularly called. VHS was the first major hospital in all of Adyar and the first voluntary hospital in the state. The hospital was constructed on a land where once occasional cows came grazing and tractors and cycles made long trails.

Voluntary Health Services came into being as a registered society in 1958, with 25 acres of land approved by the state government in Adyar. VHS became a physical entity in 1961 when Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru laid the cornerstone of the first block of buildings. The out-patient services, the diagnostic laboratory and the X-Ray department were started even as the first block was under construction.

VHS was the brainchild of Dr. K. S. Sanjivi, a man of immense discipline and scholarship. He believed that masses had to be educated about health and hygiene; that it was not possible sitting in the comforts of a hospital room. It was here that he emphasized on field trips. He saw them as part and parcel of a doctor’s routine. Dr. Sanjivi advocated a preventive approach towards diseases. To cater to the different sections of society, several branches were set-up in the outskirts of Madras. All these mini-health centres acted like veins carrying the life-giving blood to the heart: VHS, Adayar.

Being a semi-government body, VHS mainly survived through beneficiaries. The first donation came from the Madras Race Club, that of Rs 5 lakh and the proceeds from a day’s racing. Several top medicos in Madras agreed to serve freely in VHS. Balasubramaniam Ramamurthi, considered as the Father of Neurosurgery of India, started the Neurosurgical Centre in the hospital in 1977-1978. A group of eminent citizens of Madras such as the editor of The Hindu K. Srinivasan, the legal luminary T.R.Venkatarama Sastriar, the Congress leader M. Bhaktavatsalam and the industrialist M.A. Chidambaram also gave their support. All throughout, VHS has been focusing on the marginal sections of the society. They were treated for little or no fee. It is precisely because of this reason that the government supported VHS with an annual grant. 
With the demise of Dr. Sanjivi 10 years ago, VHS has gradually turned into a ship without a rudder. The consultation fee has seen an exponential increase. X-ray, which cost five rupees a few years ago now costs hundreds. There are more entry barriers for the poor than ever. This has gone against the spirit with which the hospital was created. Dr. Sarojini, a veteran physician who has been working in VHS for over four decades says, “Back then the team of doctors went on field trips on their own expenses. But now, the young doctors are not interested in field trips. They are always on a look-out to escape from this place and join a private hospital”.

Today, a walk from Madhya Kailash to the Adyar Bridge opens up many private homes and dental clinics. Malar hospital, the biggest and priciest of all, lies left to the bridge. There are plenty of hospital advertisement boards too, and the eyes slowly get apathetic to them. The sheer quantity creates a delusion that the health services have become extensive and inclusive. But the very purpose has changed. Hospitals have become businesslike in their approach. There are more and more hospitals in the pipeline; some are in their twilight years too. Amongst all these, VHS seems to stand like an old lighthouse. Whether it will be swept by the wave of change or stand upright, is something which remains to be seen. 

- Subin Paul 

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