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Years ago, Mumbai-based gynaecologist, lactation consultant and author Taru Jindal hadn’t anticipated that her life would turn around. It was a project by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2014 that led her to the hinterlands of Bihar, where she was exposed to the realities of rural healthcare. The journey wasn’t easy in any way — in fact, it is chequered with various highs and lows. But if there’s one learning from it all — it is about how she has turned her challenges into opportunities.
Today, most of her work includes spreading awareness about breastfeeding by way of workshops and seminars.
In a freewheeling chat with Health Shots, Jindal tells us all about her journey, her tryst with rural healthcare, and why spreading awareness about breastfeeding is important for her.
From the very start, Jindal was brought up in an academically-oriented environment in Anushakti Nagar, on the outskirts of Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Mumbai. She mingled with intellectuals at a young age, and it is these erudite interactions that made it almost natural for her and her peers to pursue engineering or medicine.
The biggest influence in her life have been her parents, who have not just supported her, but made her understand the true meaning of perseverance and resilience. “My mother was a teacher and father a scientist. It is their perseverance and dedication, and how they put effort into everything, is what influenced me in a big way,” says Jindal.
While pursuing her medical degree, Jindal also absorbed herself in literature, and it was around then that she read Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography that shaped her thoughts, and made her realise about the kind of life she wanted to lead.
Her partner, Dharav Shah, who she met for the first time at the BJ Medical College, Pune has always been one of her biggest catalysts for growth. “I was only 17 when I met Dharav in college. We were involved in various service-based set-ups in Maharashtra, including Anandwan where Baba Amte worked and Gadchiroli where Dr Abhay and Rani Bang had done great work. These were all credible doctors who had given up the comforts of city life, and had moved to remote tribal areas to work in rural healthcare,” she says.
When Jindal embarked on her journey to Bihar, and finally reached the district hospital at Motihari, what she saw completely changed her perspective. She was sent to Bihar to train gynaecologists as well as look at the quality of childbirths. Instead, she witnessed the most disturbing images there. There would be biomedical waste lying outside the labour room as well as no proper protocol observed to deliver babies. Hygiene was one of the glaring challenge there, and everything put together shook Jindal.
“In fact, the medical staff there including nurses did not have much knowledge about how to check the mother’s blood pressure and heart rate of babies. This lead to several infant deaths. At that point, I had decided to leave but my husband asked me to complete my commitment of three months,” she says, adding that those three months eventually turned into two years.
After a few months, her team grew – it was a time when all of the wanted to do something, but were wondering how to go about it. Slowly and steadily, they trained the staff, and this eventually instilled a sense of accomplishment in nurses, who were happy that they could finally help in the delivery of mothers!
The team worked towards attitude building of the staff, and then moved on to building skills. Soon after, nurses and sweepers felt a sense of accomplishment when they saved babies or helped mothers during delivery.
After her stint in Motihari, Jindal worked in Masarhi in Bihar, where she worked towards resolving the burgeoning challenge of malnutrition. Taru started a healthcare centre in the village and treated everything, right from leprosy to pneumonia.
Unfortunately, she had to leave this project after she was diagnosed with a brain tumour. But as someone who is always ready to face challenges head-on, she decided to write the book ‘A Doctor’s Experiments in Bihar’ during this time.
Today, she works as a successful lactation consultant and advises mothers on the importance of breastfeeding. A lot of her work also revolves around busting myths around breastfeeding – a glaring issue that has been the cause of low breastfeeding rates in India.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the recommended age which mothers must breastfeed their child is until they turn two; but that hardly happens in India today.
“The National Family Health Survey (NFHS) data released in 2016 reveals that only 54.9 per cent of children are exclusively breastfed for the first six months. This is largely because very few doctors and nurses are trained in breastfeeding skills, because of which they are unable to disseminate the right information to the mothers,” she says.
More often than not, women stop breastfeeding their first child, if they are pregnant again since they believe they will go through a miscarriage. But Jindal says that’s not true at all. “The oxytocin that is released during breastfeeding is what makes the uterus contract. That’s why mothers feel that miscarriages can happen. But the truth is the uterus will not respond to it until it is close to the labour period, “ she adds.
Another myth that’s been doing the rounds is how certain foods and supplements increase the production of breast milk, but that’s not true at all. At the end of the day, milk supply is dependent on demand and supply mechanisms. So, the more milk you give, the more the breast produces. “If a mother is breastfeeding well, the milk produced by both the breasts will be about 700-800 ml in 24 hours,” Jindal says.
It’s important to remember that giving formula milk to the baby or also if the baby latches on in the wrong manner, breast milk can be restricted. At the end of the day, Jindal wants to empower women to make informed decisions. As they say, knowledge is power!