Thursday, December 02, 2010

A heroine of our times!


Philomina Mary was afflicted by polio at the age of five. But that did not prevent her from getting two Master’s degrees as well as a M. Phil. Later, she served as a librarian in the Christian Medical College Hospital in Vellore for 27 years

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day, in 1950, when Philomina Mary returned from school in Tirunelveli she began suffering from fever. When she awoke after a small nap, she saw that her body had become stiff. “My mother called a doctor, who gave an injection,” says Philomina.

At night, when her mother tried to lift her up to take to the toilet, she could not do so. Philomina’s body had become very heavy. The next morning, when the doctor examined Philomina again, he pronounced the dreaded words: “She is paralysed.”

It was then that Philomina was told that she had become a victim of polio. “At that time there was no awareness of the anti-polio vaccine,” she says. Philomina was only five years old. Thereafter, the family tried all sorts of treatments for her, but to no avail.

In Tirunelveli there was a school close to the house which she would attend once in a while. “I was determined to study,” she says.

At the age of 12, Philomina underwent surgeries on her legs and spine, at the Trivandrum Medical College. “Dr. K.I. George discovered that I had a curved spine,” she says. She had to put on steel braces to prop up her chest and calipers on her legs.

Philomina continued to study and sat for her SSLC examinations in 1963. But she did go through a traumatic time. On the morning of the mathematics exam, she was waiting with Lakshmi, her friend and neighbour, on the road for a taxi.

Suddenly a horse cart came up, hit Philomina, and dragged her for several feet. Eventually, she fell into a narrow ditch full of dirty water. “I had to be taken home, given a bath and wear fresh clothes,” she says. By the time she reached the exam hall, she was late by half an hour.

“I felt panic-stricken and exhausted by anxiety,” she says. She put her head on the table and went off to sleep. She got up half an hour later, and hurriedly finished the paper. “I did not achieve the 100 per cent that I hoped to,” she says. Nevertheless, Philomina passed the exam.

Thereafter, for the next seven years, Philomina stayed at home because there were no correspondence courses at that time. Then in 1970, luck turned in her favour. In the colony where she was residing, Meenakshi, the principal of the nearby Rani Annadurai Government Arts and Science College, came to stay. Through Meenakshi, Philomina was able to get admission in the pre-degree course.

She was 25 years old. Soon, she passed her examinations and gained entry into the Sarah Tucker College in Palayamkottai. Philomina did her BA in history. She stayed in the hostel.

In the final year, there was a function in the college. The famous Tamil writer Dr. Mu Varadarajan, the vice-chancellor of the Madurai Kamaraj University, was the chief guest. When Philomina expressed her desire to become a librarian, Varadarajan said they did not have a library science course, but had plans to start one. If they did, he promised her a seat. The next year, the university did, indeed, start a course and Varadarajan kept his word.

Following her graduation, in 1975, Philomena got a job as an assistant librarian at the College of Nursing in the Christian Medical College Hospital (CMCH) in Vellore. She worked there for 27 years. During this period, she did her masters in library science and history and a M. Phil on labour studies from the Madurai Kamaraj University.

Dr. Ravi Jacob Korula, Orthopaedics professor in CMCH, says, “Philomina was given accommodation very close to the library. In spite of this, she used to take a long time to cover this short distance. It was a struggle and she was obviously in pain. However, she always had a smile on her face.”

When Philomina retired in 2002, an old friend from Vellore, Sr. Mariella, invited her to stay at the Mercy Home at Kurisumood, on the outskirts of Changanacherry, which is run by the Sisters of the Destitute. It is a home where disabled children are provided treatment and given an education.

“I keep reminding the children that their lives are not hopeless, and they can get jobs and lead a fulfilling life,” she says. “I want to serve as an inspiration.” At the home, she teaches sociology and maintains the library.

In September, the Malayalam version of Philomina's autobiography, ‘Countable blessings in my physically challenged life’ was published. A fortnight ago, she was given the ‘Vocational Excellency Award’ from the District Rotary Club of Changanacherry.

In her room, I ask her to stand near the window so that I could take a photograph. Philomina grips the edge of a table and pushes herself forward, inch by inch. It takes five minutes for her to cross three feet. She turns, looks at me, and says, “I may be a disabled person, but I don’t lack courage.”

Yes, indeed, Philomina is a heroine of our times!

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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