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Our Founder Speaks History Team  

Late Dr. Claire Vellut, Founder Trustee

While in medical college at Louvain (Belgium) I wanted to share the Lord’s love for His brothers and sisters, especially those with special needs, and spontaneously I thought of India. I became a member of a society, which is now called “International Fraternal Association” and along with two companions Simone Liégeois and Hélène Eenberg, who were both trained staff nurses, I left for India in 1954. Just before, there had been a huge storm with high tide at the Belgian coast, and an international appeal was made for jute bags to fill sand and stop further flood damage. India made a generous donation of several tonnes of jute bags. By way of gratitude for this timely help some eminent persons in Belgium set up a fund for a project in India. Thus, Dr Frans Hemerijckx, a dedicated leprologist with 25 years experience in Congo, was asked to initiate the founding of a leprosy control programme in India, to equip it, to train staff, and then, as per agreement, “after five years hand over the centre to the Government of India lock, stock and barrel”. We were invited to join this venture.

"Listening to the heartbeat of the common people, I experienced a strong force of resilience in the face of the hardest situations, which fills us with confidence for the future of our great human family."

The village Polambakkam in Tamilnadu was chosen because it already had a history of caring for leprosy patients started by Dr Cochrane. It was situated in a highly endemic area and it was also close to the Central Leprosy Teaching & Research Institute at Chingleput. Moreover, the local population proved to be very cooperative. This was to be a leprosy centre “on wheels”, with ambulatory service in the midst of the people. It grew to become a model project for mass treatment. Being aided by a “Belgian foundation”, it was an important step in the international effort towards leprosy control. We were fully involved in the work, with enthusiasm and especially with respect for the patients whom we served. After five years the then Madras State Government took over the centre in 1960, but asked me to continue to be the medical officer in charge for another five years, which was extended again and again. At the end of 25 years, our records show that with a dedicated staff of paramedical workers we had taken care of more than 50,000 patients in our 52 mobile “clinics under the trees”. We also carried out epidemiological survey and research, and studied the destruction of the nerve function in leprosy.

In the meantime, a voluntary organization, called “Friends of Father Damien”, was founded in Belgium by Fr.Obbels and Jacques Vellut. The latter got personally involved and with his wife, put up the “Beatitudes” (Anandapuram), a home at Polambakkam for advanced leprosy cases, mostly helpless patients without family support. Back in Belgium, Jacques Vellut took an active role in organizing the “Damien Foundation” (now called Damien Action) with the backing of generous donors, for sponsoring dynamic projects all over the world. Naturally, I supported the Indian branch and became the founder of the Damien Foundation India Trust (DFIT) in the year 1992. From 1980 till 1984 I was appointed as a WHO short-term consultant in the field of leprosy control in India and neighbouring countries. I helped to initiate the Multi Drug Therapy scheme in the Purulia District of West Bengal. I had been granted Indian citizenship in 1979. In 1981 the Government of India awarded me with Padmashri. In 1984 I was nominated as Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences (FAMS). In the same year I was asked to serve as full-fledged secretary for the DFIT till 1992. We made good efforts to initiate mass-oriented rural leprosy centres in Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Karnataka and Gujarat. These wre similar to the pattern of Polambakkam, that is, to be handed over to the respective states after 5 years of hard teamwork. We focused on early prevention rather than belated cure. From the year 1996 the DFIT got simultaneously involved in control of tuberculosis.


Dr. Claire Vellut with inmates of Polambakkam Home

All this was not possible without our many friends in Belgium. My alma mater, the University of Louvain (KUL), made me “doctor honoris causa” in public health. The Belgian Government also added several awards in recognition for the many years of constant service to the cause of leprosy. All this sounds good, but honestly, it cannot compare with the sense of gratitude for having been able to live and work so long in India, the country of my choice. I could live in a village, take care of chronic patients and be in close contact with their families. I could share my life and expertise with colleagues and friends, while discovering the esteemed values of Indian hospitality and deep spirituality. Listening to the heartbeat of the common people, I experienced a strong force of resilience in the face of the hardest situations, which fills us with confidence for the future of our great human family. In summary, I feel I have lived a very privileged life!

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