In 1989, Dr Fernandez set up Asia’s first milk bank at Sion Hospital. She then went on to start SNEHA in the early 1990s with the aim to reduce maternal and neonatal mortality and gender-based violence. Routinely treating low-income families coming in with sick, premature infants, she wanted to develop sustainable interventions that would go beyond providing stopgap solutions.
Dr Fernandez then decided to transition out of her role at SNEHA—a feat very few founders manage. After retirement, the serial entrepreneur set up a palliative care clinic and continues to participate in the improvement of public health services actively.
Dr Fernandez, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your family growing up?
I was born in Karnataka, in a small place called Dharwad. It was a university town; there were no factories, just colleges, and lots of trees, flowers, and plants. I was the youngest of seven siblings. All my life I received so much love from family, friends and relatives. It makes you a different sort of person; I was really blessed.
My father was a professor of English and Latin. English Literature was my favourite subject. From Thomas Hardy to PG Wodehouse—I read every single book. My favourite subjects after literature were math and physics. But I chose to become a doctor because what would have I done with math and physics?
I got my MBBS degree in Hubli, just next door to Dharwad, and my postgraduate degree in Mumbai at KEM Hospital, where I studied paediatrics. Later, I moved to Sion Hospital.
What were some of your early influences?
The more I worked inside the hospital, the more I felt the need to get out of it, and work with these women to help them and their babies survive.
I remember an experience I had while I was at Sion hospital that upset me a lot. We had a six-week-old baby that was raped. Six-week-old baby! At the time, we were caring for 10,000 babies; we had teaching programmes; there were so many things happening all at once that we couldn’t follow up on the social issues of what had happened. Who was the baby with? Had the police intervened? It was then that I promised myself that when I got out of the hospital, I would work against violence.
Sion Hospital also had an entire ward for female burns. We had many women who came into the hospital burnt; the incidents were largely either homicidal or suicidal. When the women were asked for their dying declaration, they would flatly deny that anyone else had played a role in their ‘suicide’. They felt threatened and afraid; they worried about what might happen to their children if they told the truth.
All of these experiences ultimately led me to do what I finally did at SNEHA.
It’s a huge step to go from being a doctor to set up something as an entrepreneur. Could you tell us a little bit about the early days at SNEHA?
When I first started, I didn’t even know what a nonprofit was. I only knew that I wanted to work in the slums. Fortunately, someone from TISS who was working at the milk bank (that I set up while at Sion) helped me with understanding compliance, the rules and regulations of setting up a trust, and so on.
The early days were very haphazard; we had no idea how to run a nonprofit, but I have seen that when your intentions are good, you are honest and do a good job, things fall into place, and people come forward to fund you. I believe a superior power pushes us.
I had gone to a wedding and mentioned to my friend Neville Soans that I wanted to start this work in the slums; he said he had a house he was selling and would give me the money from its sale to get started. The next day, he had a massive heart attack and passed away.
A few months later, his wife Patricia, came to me with the money. She was now a single mother with five children between the ages of five and 15 to care for, but she still insisted that I take the money, because this had been her husband’s last wish. I told Patricia that we should go on this journey together.
With that money, we started SNEHA.
What was helpful in the early days was that given our prior experience at Sion Hospital we understood the Mumbai municipal corporation very well; we knew the strengths and weaknesses of the system. At SNEHA, we worked both with the municipal corporation to improve the quality of the system, and the communities to disseminate knowledge, and change behaviour. Most nonprofits back then would just do community work; our programmes worked with systems and communities in tandem.
And were the communities receptive when you first went into the slums?
We found that community mobilisation in slums was far more difficult than in rural areas because in rural areas, communities are more or less homogeneous. In contrast, working in urban slum communities is not easy; all of India lives in Dharavi.
Each street has people from different states and communities and families come from different traditional and cultural practices that influence their health seeking patterns. As a result, getting them together to form community groups was not easy. So, we decided to form ‘galli groups’ instead, because people knew each other in their gallis.
When you’re working with communities, you also cannot expect results in a short period. It takes time to build trust. You have to get into the community, understand them, spend time with them. Today, if there is any problem, they contact us. But they have also become self-sustaining with regard to solving their issues. To change behaviour, we had to use various methods— house to house visits, forming women’s groups and slum committees that would influence others. We also had women as volunteers on our programme on violence, and it was amazing to watch these women take charge and bring about change in their communities.
We have a large number of women’s, youth and even men’s groups that have mobilised against violence. I remember some women were once getting harassed by some boys; they knew exactly what to do and how to proceed. You can really see the change, the way in which people have come together. There is so much empowerment there now.
You’re also very passionate about urban health. What are some of the challenges you’ve seen that are unique to urban areas?
People living in urban slums have a rough existence. Overcrowding, lack of drinking water, poor sanitation and ventilation are major hazards to health, and people living in slums are prone to infections and diseases that spread easily in these poorly ventilated homes. Women and children are most vulnerable—not only to illnesses but to the social evils that surround them—alcoholism, drugs and violence. Besides, a majority of families are nuclear and have no extended family support.
For decades the country has focused on rural health, and with the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) there was a well-organised health system in place.
When we started SNEHA in 1999 urban health as an organised system was non-existent. Later, urban health got integrated into the National Health Mission, but things are still happening too slowly. The urban population is growing so fast; health systems need to keep up. The government has plans, they’ve allocated budgets, but translating missions into action is a long-drawn procedure.
The challenges to urban health are many:
Going back to SNEHA, it’s probably one of the few nonprofits where the founder has handed over the reins to somebody else to run it. Very few people can transition like that. What was the process like?
I wanted to see what SNEHA would become, not after me, but in my lifetime. What I see happening everywhere is people hold on to their organisations until they die, and then changes take place that they may not have liked. This way, I can see what is happening with SNEHA, and bring about a change if I feel I need to.
You also need to look at yourself and assess your strengths and weaknesses. If you want your baby to survive, you will make sure that the person taking over has strengths where you had weaknesses.
The transition was not easy—let me tell you. SNEHA was my whole life. But I had to step back completely. If I kept going back and lingering, it would be hard for the new CEO to take over. I think they’ve done a much better job than I did because I was not a professional, I was still ultimately a dreamer and a teacher. This is something I would like to tell other nonprofits as well—the handover is important.
What have been some major learnings from SNEHA?
So, what’s next for you?
I recently lost my only child to cancer. In her final months, she was at home, and it wasn’t easy; there was no one advising me on what painkillers to give her, and how to make her more comfortable. I didn’t want others to go through what I did, which is why a year ago after I retired, my heart told me to start something for other families. So, I started a palliative care centre, where patients could have relief from pain, comfort care, and counselling to improve the quality of their lives.
We have had more than 250 patients in one year. We do home visits, with a doctor, nurse, counsellor, nutritionist, and physiotherapist, and they figure out how to make the patient as comfortable as possible. About 60% of our patients have now died at home, peacefully. And now that I’ve retired at medical director of Holy Family Hospital, I want to take palliative care to scale.
Ultimately, I think that everything in life is about love. Love is an echo. I got a lot of love, so I love a lot of people. If you love, you care. And if you care, you’ll do what you have to do.
Today, I have no regrets. If I had to live my life again, I’d do medicine; I’d work in Sion Municipal Hospital, I’d start SNEHA.
Smarinita Shetty contributed to this interview.
Ayesha Marfatia: Ayesha is an analyst at India Development Review. At IDR, she handles research driven reports and curated content, in addition to writing and editing. Ayesha holds a BA in Sociology and Anthropology from St Xavier’s College, Mumbai, where her majors sparked her interest in the development sector.
Rachita Vora: Rachita is Co-founder and Director at IDR. Before this, she led the Dasra Girl Alliance, an INR 250 crore multi-stakeholder platform that sought to empower adolescent girls in India. She has a decade of experience and has spent the past eight years working in the areas of financial inclusion, livelihoods and public health. She has led functions across strategy, business development, communications and partnerships, and her writing have been featured in the Guardian, Stanford Social Innovation Review, Next Billion and Alliance Magazine. Rachita has an MBA from Judge Business School at Cambridge University and a BA in History from Yale University.