The first time Partha Banerjee, M.D., touched the shoulder of a man who had leprosy, the patient shuddered with shock. The man had been so isolated while living in a leprosy colony in Bihar, India, that he had forgotten what it felt like, the solace of human touch. But he liked it. The next time Dr. Banerjee made medical rounds in the colony, the patient stood closer. He wanted to be touched again. "Soon everyone in the colony wanted to be touched. Everyone wants that contact which is so normal to human beings. Under the skin, we humans are all the same, after all," says Dr. Banerjee, a clinical professor of medicine at Wright State University School of Medicine.
Several years ago Dr. Banerjee took a month off from his general internal medicine practice in Dayton. He wanted to return to India to "give something back" to his native land. His journey was inspired by a question posed to him by his childhood mentor, John Moore, S.J., a Jesuit educator in India. After hearing about Dr. Banerjee's successful career in Dayton, Moore asked, "What are you doing for the poor people of India?" Dr. Banerjee was no stranger to the needs of poor people in India. As a medical student in Calcutta in the early 1960s, he worked with Mother Teresa at the Home for Destitute Dying. "I worked with Mother Teresa before the rest of the world learned about her," he explains. "With Mother Teresa, of course, you did not just sit and talk with her. It was always, 'Run, run... you, do this... you, do that.'"
His job involved driving through the teeming city in a pick-up truck to find people who were dying on the streets. "We brought them to the Home, a large shed-like building," he continues. "We bathed them, fed them, sometimes we had medicine for them. We did it so they could die more peacefully."
Dr. Banerjee arranged for his son Rahul to work with Mother Teresa before entering medical school. Rahul receives an M.D. degree this month from the University of Chicago. He told his son, "It will make you a better doctor to know the joy of serving people who need your help."
He gives the same advice to Wright State medical students. This June, Wright State's graduating class selected Dr. Banerjee for its annual Teaching Excellence Award, an honor he has earned twice before. He also received the Humanism in Medicine Award, which is given by the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey to a medical educator who consistently demonstrates compassion and empathy in patient care.
Returning to India, according to Dr. Banerjee, meant renewing the convictions that led him into the medical profession. He undertook the journey at his own expense and made all the arrangements himself, without the assistance or sponsorship of international humanitarian organizations. His mentor put him in contact with nuns who run the Holy Family Hospital in Koderma, a town in central Bihar. The nuns also provide humanitarian aid to a nearby colony of about 50 people who have leprosy. "I'm not an expert on leprosy," Dr. Banerjee is quick to acknowledge. As a medical student in India he saw only one case of the disease, which remains uncommon but not rare in the world's tropical and subtropical regions. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports more than a million registered cases worldwide, with half a million in India.
Today's drug therapies for leprosy can stop the spread of infection and result in improvement in some cases. In the 1980s, however, health officials worldwide noted an increase in resistance to dapsone, the most commonly used drug. While the disease is not transmitted by casual contact, isolating infected persons remains the most effective way to prevent leprosy. Social isolation may be leprosy's most devastating complication, according to Dr. Banerjee. "There is such a stigma associated with it. One of the hardest things about it is what to do with children whose parents have leprosy. Eventually they will get it through breast feeding or long-term contact. Ideally, the children should be removed from their mothers. But a mother isn't going to give up her child. She's a mother, after all. And where in India would that child go?"
Dr. Banerjee spent his days treating other patients from Koderma. Many were reluctant to come to the hospital because they knew it was associated with the leprosy colony. So he also visited local schools to offer outreach clinics. Every evening he returned to the colony to provide an open-air clinic by the side of the road. Some nights he offered a foot clinic. Other nights were just for the children. At the end of each clinic he would visit one person's ramshackle hut. Every person in turn received a home visit, and in the day-to-day lives of people with leprosy, the simple event became as important as the doctor's touch.