“Since I was pursuing my degree in a government medical college, I encountered patients who were mostly from an underprivileged background. I got a first-hand exposure to their plights and distress, and the factors that prevent them from availing timely medical care,” recalls Priyanjali, in a conversation with Efforts For Good.
While in college, Priyanjali’s unique approach to spread breast cancer awareness through fashion shows and choreography garnered a lot of attention in national and even international media. Soon, she delved into the scene of rural healthcare, dropping-in door-to-door in villages to inform women about breast cancer. That’s how Aaroogya came into being and propelled Priyanjali as a full-time social entrepreneur.
Battling Resistance From The Villagers
Initially, she would face a lot of resistance from the villagers, as the womenfolks were either not allowed to step outside the confines of the household, or they were conditioned to ignore any health issues, especially those concerning their ‘private parts’. There had been times when men armed with ‘lathis’ surrounded Priyanjali and her team during their interaction with women in Uttar Pradesh hamlets.
With time, Priyanjali and her trained team of women volunteers managed to break the ice and share tête-à-tête with the shy housewives and teenage girls. Later they would be invited to attend the screening camps, where many had been diagnosed with breast or cervical cancer, even at critical stages. Most of her volunteers were Anganwadi workers and ASHA workers who were trained for months about the basics of cancer.
Priyanjali attributes a substantial part of Aaroogya’s success to Thermal Mammogram – an AI-driven procedure which helped her diagnose malignancy symptoms in women, without involving any physical touch of a doctor which they are extremely conscious about. In recognition of her incredible efforts, Hans Foundation has donated a Thermal Mammogram machine to Aaroogya, easing Priyanjali’s work by loads.
Some Shocking Encounters With The Stark Village Reality
Priyanjali recalls some of the shocking encounters she had in these villages.
“The level of ignorance and neglect of health among the villagers is appalling. In one UP village, people were consuming Bhang, weed and hash day in and day out, regarding it as ‘Bholenath Ka Prasad’ (Lord Shiva’s blessing), without having the slightest idea how gravely it is harming their health,” she shares.
Many patients would continue to ignore their cancer symptoms even in advanced stages, passing it off as some skin ailment or simply choosing to live with it, since they cannot afford treatment and medicine.
“In one camp, a middle-aged woman came, complaining of severe backache. When we examined her, we were terrified to find her at a very advanced stage of breast cancer. She had barely put up a thin cloth over her right breast which was completely disfigured and bleeding profusely. We rushed her to the emergency at the nearest hospital in Patna. She is now undergoing treatment,” Priyanjali shares, expressing her anguish at the body-shaming stigma plaguing the lives of rural women.
Priyanjali was quite sceptical when Aaroogya was invited to Rishikesh, Uttarakhand, by the local Ayushman Bharat coordinator to conduct a breast cancer camp in her hospital. “I thought a pollution-free, organically enriched place like Rishikesh would have almost no cases of breast cancer. I was in for a shock when six women nurses at the hospital itself were diagnosed with the disease at dangerous stages,” she shares.
Expressing Her Gratitude
“I must express my sincere gratitude to a few eminent dignitaries, without whose guidance none of Aaroogya’s progress would have been a reality. Ronald van het Hof, the managing director of Women on Wings taught me the nitty-gritty of being an entrepreneur, while Dr Pramod Kumar Julka exposed me to the latest developments in cancer treatment like molecular profiling or precision medicine,” expresses Priyanjali.
“My interaction with Mary, an anthropologist from Israel, helped me understand how a person’s surroundings and daily schedule have the largest impact on the body. Moat of the disease manifestations are just repercussions from the daily lifestyle. She designed a data-driven curriculum for us to introduce our fellowship – Aaroogya Research and Public Health Fellowship (ARPHF),” Priyanjali narrates how Aaroogya introduced their prestigious fellowship for sprouting women changemakers in India.
From Breast Cancer To Holistic Healthcare
Recently, Aaroogya branched out into the domain of holistic healthcare alongside their dedicated breast cancer segment. In collaboration with the Central Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Priyanjali launched the Swasthya Nari Sashakta Buxar initiative in Buxar, Bihar, which
Brought 10,000 rural women into the ambit of overall health checkups and consequent treatments.
“I consider this a huge step for Aaroogya towards a bright future where we don’t just limit ourselves to breast cancer awareness, but effectively offer complete healthcare services to village women,” reiterates Priyanjali.
In the Bihar Aaroogya camps, the women were screened for breast cancer, cervical cancer, nutritional deficiency as well as made aware about menstrual hygiene. They also conducted malnutrition surveys among children and offered prostate cancer, kidney damage and hepatitis screening for men.
The Challenges & The Solution
For all these years, the entire funding for Aaroogya came from Priyanjali’s personal savings and contributions from her father, Sanjit Dutta. She might have received endless honours for her amazing efforts, but the sustainability of her non-profit foundation worries her the most.
With Aaroogya propagating into the fields of telemedicine, AI-based health programmes and advanced technology, she sincerely hopes the support for her work continues to pour in from all walks of society. Recently, she was felicitated by WEFT as the Young Achiever of The Year.