- Posted October 7, 2013 by
Dr. Claire Vellut - A Doctor Deferred
History of leprosy service:
She came to India in 1955 with Dr. Frans Hemerijckx (another Belgian doctor) and created what is called the "clinic under the trees". Dr. Claire Vellut was part of the Damien Foundation. She started her work in the village of Polambakkam, Kanchipuram district in Tamilnadu. The village already had a history of caring for leprosy patients started by one Dr Cochrane. It was here that she treated more than 31,000 patients. After the initial five years the then State Government took over the centre in 1960, and asked her to continue as the medical officer for another five years, and extended the period of her service for a long time till she left the country in 2012.
Awards for her services:
Indian Government granted her the Indian citizenship in 1979. From 1980 till 1984 she was appointed as a WHO short-term consultant in the field of leprosy control in India and neighbouring countries. In 1981 the Government of India awarded her the Padmashri Award. In 2012, she received the International Gandhi Award for her continuous work over 25 years in the field of leprosy.
Simple and forgotten life of Dr. Claire:
It is true that India has other good Samaritans for the lepers. But they were all Indian. She was the last of the foreign souls to serve the Indian leprosy community. The awards speak for themselves. On the contrary the awards could not sustain the spirit of that great lay foreign missionary.
After the news of her death I visited the place of her living in the village of Polambakkam which is located four kilometres on Cheyyoor road east of Melmaruvathoor temple (93 kilometres south of Chennai on NH – 45). The place was not new to me. I have visited her room a few times in the past while she lived there. When I went there the door of her room was locked from the inside. I heard the ceiling fan running and knocked. To my surprise a man opened the door and told me that he is a watchman from a nearby field and is keeping bared wires in the room. It was a blow to my expectations. India was known to preserve the house or the room of those who dedicated their life for its poor. But here I found that the room was
rooted out of its very significance.
It is a tiled roof room fit for a single person. Her room was almost the same as that of Mother Theresa in Calcutta. (I have visited Mother Theresa’s room). The difference is that now it was used as a store room and as a rest room for a watchman. The simple tape cot in which she used to sleep was displaced and her bedding was folded. The wooden table and chair merely made their physical presence. They were all pushed to a corner and the space was used for storing bundles of barbed wire. The room has lost its soul and the emptiness is deafening.
The back door of that single room was latched and when I opened it there was an enclosure with 5 feet high wall. A shower pipe extending from the wall indicated that it was a bathroom. The bathroom lacked a roof and I think it was left like that. I think she kept it simple so that she can engage herself entirely for the service of the lepers.
Need to preserve symbols of her simple life:
The life of Dr. Claire was undoubtedly a life of dedication. Her love and dedication for the lepers knew no boundaries. It was a life beyond class, caste, religion and communal differences. Such a wonderful simplicity and dedication is very much evident in the room and her materials in the room. These materials were in communication with her and she existed within them too. The feeling that it is not proper on our part to discard such symbols of simplicity, dedication and commitment was so overpowering when I saw the decadence to which her room was subjected to by ignorant people.
She had lived a life of simplicity almost equal to Mother Theresa. Comparing her to Mother Theresa makes me to wonder whether she was part of any Catholic missionary congregation. I am not sure. Let us just say that her life was the epitome of simplicity and poverty. Her life compels me to think that she was a lay Catholic doctor missionary of the Lepers. By her life she has exemplified the fact that virtues of simplicity and poverty were not exclusive to religious congregations. We too can live it. I would like to think that it was her purpose in life. Her room and the materials she used should be preserved so that when we look at them we remember her and set her as an example in the service of the poor.