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Tributes paid to Indian smile-making medical missionary 

The Parsee surgeon was instrumental in the growth of a Catholic mission hospital in Kerala

Anto Akkara, Thrissur

Anto Akkara, Thrissur

Published: May 30, 2020 03:53 AM GMT

Updated: May 30, 2020 03:54 AM GMT

Tributes paid to Indian smile-making medical missionary 

Dr. Hirji Sorab Adenwalla hugs a child whose cleft lip he corrected through surgery. The surgeon died on May 27 of age-related causes. (Photo supplied)

Glowing tributes have been paid to Dr. Hirji Sorab Adenwalla, a surgeon who corrected the cleft lips of thousands of children during his six decades of medical mission in southern India. He died on May 27 at the age of 90.

After joining Jubilee Mission Hospital in Thrissur Archdiocese in Kerala in 1959, Adenwalla performed more than 22,000 corrective operations on children with cleft lips.

"He was a true missionary doctor whose love for the poor and the suffering is beyond words," said Father Francis Pallikkunnath, the hospital director.

Adenwalla, meaning the one from Eden (paradise), was born in Mumbai in a family of Parsees. The tiny community of some 50,000 people follow the Persian prophet Zoroaster and live mostly in western India.

Adenwalla came to Kerala at the age of 29 as the first full-time doctor of the Catholic hospital in Thrissur district. He was instrumental in its growth to become a medical college hospital with more than 1,500 beds now.

"He was the cornerstone of our hospital. He found competent doctors and built up each of the departments over the decades. We are proud of his commitment," Father Pallikkunnath said.

He started the Charles Pinto Centre for Cleft Lip within the hospital, naming it after his mentor in Mumbai. He continued to work there until December 2019.

A dedicated team of four surgeons and their teams provide free cleft lip surgery, including a one-week post-surgery stay at the hospital for the children and their attendant. The New York-based Smile Train foundation provides 20,000 rupees (US$285) for each operation.

Adenwalla was "one of our first partner surgeons and a pioneer of cleft care in India," Smile Train, which operates in 87 countries, said in a tribute. "His energy and enthusiasm to create smiles knew no bounds. He will always be a guardian angel for children with clefts." 

Helping families 

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Despite his advanced age, "he was meticulous in his examination and performed at least three cleft surgeries in a week until nearly the very end. It was truly a joy to see him interact with children in a gentle way — he was the very picture of benevolence and compassion," Smile Train India said.

Adenwalla was bestowed with the prestigious Joseph G. McCarthy Award for Cleft Surgery, regarded as the top award in the field.

He tried cleft lip surgery in the 1960s "out of sympathy" for a Muslim girl, Adenwalla told UCA News in an interview in June 2005.

"Now, it has become my mission in life. What better joy you can have than restoring smiles back to the poor people's lives?" asked Adenwalla, who held the record for conducting the most cleft lip surgeries in the world.

"The birth of a child with a cleft lip devastates families and puts them under distress," he said. Often, the husband abandons the wife and the child unable to accept the disformity. However, after each cleft lip surgery, he said, "invariably, the husband returns and takes back the wife and child."

It was the "joy of uniting families" that made him concentrate only on cleft lip surgery from early 2000 despite being known as a versatile surgeon over the decades.

The way to the mission

His doctor father, administrator of a Mumbai hospital, wanted his only son to pursue medicine in Boston in the US. But young Adenwalla's dream was to be a medical missionary in Africa, he told UCA News.

After his marriage, his father objected to his going to Africa and gave him the freedom to be a medical missionary anywhere in India. His wife Gulnar spotted a tiny newspaper advert that sought "an experienced, qualified surgeon for a mission hospital" in Kerala.

Although young and comparatively inexperienced, Adenwalla's frankness and commitment inspired the interviewing doctor to choose him.

Worried about the well-being of their only son, his parents handpicked a young man called Chottu and trained him as a cook before sending them off by train to Kerala.

Father Mathew Muringathery, who founded the mission hospital in a thatched shed in 1951, was at the railway station to receive his first full-time doctor.

"Welcome, doctor," greeted Father Muringathery enthusiastically, shaking hands with the smartly dressed Chottu, the cook. The unassuming Adenwalla quietly nudged the priest and told him he was the doctor.

While working, he also did a master's degree in surgery. As his fame spread as an exceptional surgeon in Kerala, big corporate hospitals in the southern state and elsewhere tried to lure him with astronomical salaries. 

But the missionary stayed loyal to Jubilee Mission Hospital, now also known for advanced treatment and free care for poor victims of snake bites and burns.

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