Remembering Suniti Solomon, a pioneer in India's AIDS research

  • Sandhya Ravishankar
  • Updated: Aug 01, 2015 01:41 IST

Barely 12 hours after former president Abdul Kalam, India’s ‘Missile Man’ died in Shillong, one more death took place in Chennai. Dr Suniti Solomon, India’s pioneer in AIDS research and a leading expert in the country on HIV AIDS, succumbed to cancer at the age of 76.

Both the ceremonies were a study in contrast. VVIPs, including the Prime Minister Narendra Modi, flew down to Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu from all corners of the country to pay their last respects to Dr Kalam on Thursday. A week-long national mourning period was also declared.

Two days ago -- on July 28 -- a tight-knit group of around 200 mourners gathered at 5:30pm as their beloved Suniti Solomon was turned to ashes. Family, friends, co-workers and patients gave a warm send-off to, according to many, their saviour.

Dr Tokugha Yepthomi, 51, a native of Nagaland and a colleague of the late Dr Solomon, had trouble expressing himself. “She has made me what I am today –- given me a lot of hope and courage,” he told HT.

Yepthomi was found to be HIV positive in the late 1990s, a time when information about the affliction was relatively little and social stigma was enormous.

Shunned by family and friends back home in Nagaland, a devastated Yepthomi found his way to Chennai, then called Madras, and crossed paths with Dr Suniti Solomon. Not only did she offer him treatment and support, but also a job and put him firmly on the path to recovery and self-respect.

“Whatever I am today is due to her kindness, support and encouragement,” said Yepthomi. “When I was first diagnosed with HIV, I was a doctor but I was totally lost. Meeting her brought me a lot of hope. I thought I will never be able to practice my profession again. For me her death is like that of my mother, my guidance, my inspiration."

Dr Solomon’s pioneering work in AIDS research began in 1986 when she tested 100 sex workers in Chennai for the AIDS virus. Six of them tested positive, a discovery that could mean that millions in India were already infected and spreading the deadly virus unknowingly.

Later, Dr Solomon’s discovery would send shock waves through the Indian government, forcing the notoriously slow system to swing into action, putting in place programmes on AIDS awareness and prevention.

Battling social stigma, family pressures and the fear of an unknown disease was not easy. But Dr Solomon persisted, eventually opening the country’s first voluntary AIDS screening centre and treatment facility in her native Chennai in 1993, called YRG Care. The initial few years saw an average of one call a week from a patient wanting to be tested for HIV. Soon the floodgates opened and YRG Care, under the able guidance of Dr Solomon would treat over 200,000 patients.

“She was a very bold and courageous person, forthright in her communication,” said AK Ganesh, project manager at YRG Care who has worked with Dr Solomon since 1991. “She would say exactly what she felt. She was brilliant academically and very practical. She knew the limitations of culture, systems and people. She always said if you don’t try you’ll never know,” he said.

To Dr Solomon, educated in the United States and Britain, dignity of patients was of utmost importance. “She once saw a nurse being rude to a patient who was from a poor family,” reminisced Ganesh. “She called the nurse to her room and told the nurse that the patient was not paying for our services, the trustees are, so the patient is more important than everyone else.”

Dr Solomon’s friends remember her as a woman of drive and compassion, who single-handedly, created a sea-change in the manner in which the deadly disease was viewed. “She was an amazing woman,” said Dr Lakshmi Vijaykumar, a pioneer in psychiatry in Chennai, who was a friend of the late doctor for many years. “When people were pooh-pooing the idea of India facing an AIDS epidemic of sorts, she was the one who found it first. She set up the first in-patient unit in the country for HIV patients in VHS (Voluntary Health Services). This is a big loss to the medical community and to me personally,” she said.

Dr Vijaykumar remembers fondly how the usually humourless but soft-spoken Dr Solomon and she shared a lighter moment after a seminar. “After a World Health Organization seminar that both of us attended, someone fell sick in the flight from Frankfurt to Chennai,” said Vijaykumar.

“We were both looking at each other and wondering how we were going to handle it – I mean, I am a psychiatrist and she is an HIV expert! But we managed to handle the medical emergency and shared a laugh and patted ourselves on the back – saying not bad, we had both left medicine so many years ago but we still managed to care for the patient,” she smiled.

A pioneer in a crucial field is no more. She leaves behind a wealth of knowledge and lives changed by the simple act of support and kindness. There will be no state funeral for her, no military honours and no guns will be fired as a mark of respect. No national awards have been bestowed upon her either in recognition of her contribution to the society.

“I believe that to speak of fairness after a person has passed away makes no sense,” said AK Ganesh of YRG Care. “She was never bitter about all of this. She never pursued it, never asked anyone to nominate her, rarely appeared in media. She just went about her work in a dedicated manner,” he said.

But India is indebted indeed. In the words of The New Yorker’s Michael Specter, who wrote a touching tribute to Dr Solomon: “At the beginning of the AIDS crisis, many researchers predicted an unparalleled catastrophe in India. But it never happened —in part because India had Suniti Solomon."

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