Many residents of North Chennai went into mourning in the confines of their homes on Saturday, as news of the death of a 70-year-old year doctor from Vyasarpadi became public knowledge. Dr V Thiruvengadam, affectionately called the '5-rupees-doctor' by his patients, died of a cardiac arrest over 30 years after he began serving residents of the area.
The doctor was well known in North Chennai for treating patients at their convenience, and began these services in 1973. He started off by taking Rs.5 from patients and over the years the amount grew to a very modest, Rs.50. His family and patients say that he has never taken a day off and that it was only in March that he closed his clinic for the first time in over three decades due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Despite his age, he would work the whole day and barely ever slept," says Dr. Preethi, his daughter who also assisted him in the clinic in Kalyanapuram. "He used to give patients his phone number and they could call him any time of the day. And if he couldn't physically make it to the clinic, he will guide the patients to the nearest pharmacy and tell the pharmacist what medicines have to be given," she adds.
Dr.Preethi recalls how even family commitments came secondary to her father's commitment to people.
"Even if there is some function or festival at home, he will try to wind it up quickly and run to his clinic. His patients always came first for him," she says. "He studied in a government school and then in a government college, all for free and it was deeply ingrained in him that he had to give back to the society that helped him," she explains.
Amongst the thousands gather of patients he has treated is 45-year-old Bharath, a resident of Vyasarpadi, who credits the doctor with his wife's good health.
"When my wife fell severely ill a couple of years back, it was Dr. Tiruvengadam who gave the correct diagnosis. Private hospitals suspected cancer but he correctly recognised that she had tuberculosis and treated her accordingly," he says. "Even when I wanted to give him more money he refused to take it and would become really embarrassed. For middle and low income families like mine his services can never be forgotten," he adds.
Dr.Thiruvengadam was featured in several reports across the state after the movie 'Mersal' popularised the character of a doctor who gives treatment for minimal cost.
"My father has been doing this service from before I was even born. He believed that it was wrong to take money from patients who were struggling financially. In fact even if someone offers more money he won't even touch it. He will just tell them to leave it on the table," says Dr. Preethi. "We managed our household with my mother's earnings and what he made from private hospital consultations," she adds.
Her mother T Saraswathi is a former railway employee and brother T Deepak is pursuing his final year of medicine.
The loss of the doctor is not only a blow to the family but also to residents of North Chennai who depended on the low cost of treatment for immediate medical help.
"We won't let this clinic close now. My younger brother and I are both doctors and will take his legacy forward," says Dr. Preethi. "We just need time to deal with this loss we have faced. My mother, brother and I have lost our best friend. It will be difficult to even go to a clinic where he is no longer present. But we will do this to honour his memory."