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Nun´s ´Herbal Revolution´ Helps Mothers Improve Health, Avoid Scalpel


September 14 2004

A Catholic nun´s herbal treatments have helped hundreds of pregnant women in eastern India to spend less on medicine and to avoid surgery.

One of them, Subhanti Sharma, developed complications a month before her first delivery. A doctor advised prompt surgery to save her. The Hindu woman´s husband, a carpenter, decided to sell their small plot of land in Bihar state´s West Champaran district, 980 kilometers east of New Delhi, to raise money for the surgery.

One morning Sharma heard a loudspeaker calling pregnant women to the public hall in her Sansariya village for a free checkup and medication. At the hall, Sharma related her ordeal to a woman in "a bizarre white dress."

Sacred Heart Sister Mary Elise, the woman in white, examined Sharma and concluded anemia had dangerously weakened her fetus. "Not surgery but some herbs could avert the danger," Sharma recalled the nun saying.

Sharma began taking an herbal medicine, made from the crushed roots of a kind of grass and raw turmeric, with milk. A woman associate of the nun helped Sharma identify the grass, which grows all over. Sharma, now 23, told UCA News she made "an amazing recovery within two days."

After 30 days, Sister Elise came to Sharma´s house to take her to another doctor to see if she still needed surgery. This doctor said the child was normal, and Sharma delivered a boy at her home under the care of a midwife trained by the nun.

The midwife, Devaki Yadav, told UCA News that Sharma´s case became "the trigger point." Afterward, pregnant women began thronging the herbal medication center Sister Elise has managed in the village since 1999.

One woman who came to the center after hearing of Sharma´s surgery-free delivery was Kiran Devi, now 28. She had her first two deliveries through surgery. A surgeon had told her she would never deliver without surgery. But her third conception coincided with the nun´s herbal campaign. Since then she has had three more children, all delivered without surgery.

Devi told UCA News she wonders if the nun has magical powers. "Otherwise, how could she belie the claim of a highly qualified surgeon with the help of simple herbs?" she asked.

Sister Elise told UCA News she had depended on pharmaceutical drugs when she began her health program for women in the region 14 years ago.

However, she said she gradually discovered that modern medication could not effectively cope with crises in pregnancy, prompting doctors to utilize "costly and hazardous" surgery indiscriminately. So she resolved to promote "natural" herbal medication. The Sacred Heart congregation funds her center through its Khoj (search) development program.

The center has developed a small herbal garden providing specimens of various herbs. People then learn to identify the herbs so they can gather them from the fields if they become ill, according to Yadav, a 36-year-old Hindu who works there.

Gayatri Ram, a Khoj health worker, said their "herbal revolution" has swept more than 120 villages in the district. The 32-year-old woman told UCA News the herbs have spared about 150 pregnant women from Caesarean deliveries. More than 2,000 others delivered healthy children without seeing a gynecologist or taking pharmaceutical drugs, she added.

A survey Khoj conducted in the district showed that before the center was established, 80 percent of village women had gone to doctors and half of them had Caesarean deliveries. Only 20 percent delivered at home assisted by village midwives.

Yadav claims that now 85 percent of the women use herbal medicines and do not need to visit a doctor or hospital. She said the center is reviving an indigenous method the villagers had once used.

The herbal regimen ensures pregnant women do not suffer from blood and nutrient deficiency. "Such insurance costs nothing compared to the drugs, injections and surgical gimmicks of the doctors," Yadav said. The villagers need to spend only on milk, jaggery (crude sugar), turmeric and grains to prepare the herbal concoctions, since most herbs are freely available in the area, she explained.

Sister Elise clarified that she does not oppose surgery in "some extraordinary cases." What she opposes is "its brazen misuse to mint money by exploiting the gullibility of rural folks."