The tonga that brought medical mission to Baramulla

Starting under the foliage of a Chinar tree 100 years back, the institution has emerged into a full-fledged hospice today.

At the erstwhile entry of Kashmir, some landmarks of the Jhelum Valley Road are still evoking memories of the era when tongas used to ferry unassuming emissaries for some pressing Kashmir assignments.

One tonga arrived in the treacherous year of 1921 when the bustling town of Baramulla received the first batch of health professionals.

The batch consisted of four health missionary sisters who came crisscrossing the Jhelum Valley road all the way from Rawalpindi.

These medical professionals would lay the base for Saint Joseph Hospital, the only catholic Christian hospital in J&K.

The sisters arrived at the invitation of Saint Joseph’s Missionary Society of Mill Hill. At that time, it had been 12 years since St. Joseph School Baramulla had started contributing to the education sector of the valley.

“The lady missionaries saw patients under a huge Chinar tree. A small dispensary was set up and the sisters began visiting near and distant villages, travelling on foot, on horseback or by boats through the river,” Mufti Gulzar quoting sister Elizabeth Kurien, then in-charge administrator, writes in his book ‘Kashmir in Sickness and Health’.

Decades later, the hospital continues to work on maternity health and women empowerment.

Barring two male lab technicians, everything—from finance, administration to all other medical and academic work—is managed by female staffers.

Back in the day, recalls local bizman Mohammad Yousuf Manknoo, the hospital played a great role in making healthcare facilities available to the poor section of the society.

“Till 1970s, there was an Ayurvedic dispensary in Old Town Baramulla giving the mixture of traditional medicines in self-procured bottles,” Manknoo recounts. “Healthcare was a luxury more than utility.”

In such a time when people generally relied on homemade medicines, St Josephs Hospital Baramulla was the only women and childcare centre that qualified all the parameters of a good hospital, Manknoo continues.

“I would visit the hospital to see my mother and I still recall how patients were given a compulsory bath and a fresh hospital dress before being admitted,” he said.

“Staff used to be very cooperative and helpful, surroundings and atmosphere used to be very clean and soothing. Visiting time was fixed and no trespassing was allowed.”

100 years later, the institution has undergone tremendous changes and has been successful in creating a rich legacy in health and education. The hospital has also updated infrastructure and is keeping pace with technology.

The current bedding capacity of the infirmary is 39 and there are also about 100 students enrolled in nursing school annually, in Female Multipurpose Health Worker (FMPHW) and General Nursing and Midwifery (GNM) programmes. A new hostel building has recently been constructed to increase the intake capacity.

Reliable gynaecologists, low consultation charges and relatively less footfall of patients are other reasons people prefer this hospital.

“One can see how the wellbeing of patients regardless of their monetary status is of utmost importance here,” says an attendant. “Patient recovers more from the sympathetic behaviour of the staff than the medicine.”

The institution is not only catering to the health requirements but assumes other social responsibilities as well when time demands.

The health centre extended immediate relief to the earthquake-affected families in far-flung areas of Baramulla in 2005. The hospital was also a basecamp for many NGOs involved in the rehabilitation work. The relief work continued for three years.

The earthquake also damaged the old hospital building and paved way to the new two-storied structure — a meticulously designed piece of architecture housing both the hospital and the nursing school.

Despite coming of age, the progress of the institution is still being attributed to the selfless efforts of the missionary sisters who arrived in Baramulla with the medical mission.

100 years later, that sacrifice is only serving the humanity at the erstwhile gateway of Kashmir.

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