In December that year, Dr Suniti Solomon, MD - working in a government hospital in Chennai - decided to do a reality check and what she along with her team of doctors found in just 200 samples, taken from sex workers, remand homes and other high risk segments, was six positive HIV cases. Nobody believed her and the samples were sent to US for confirmation and the results were no different. She, thus, went into the history as the first to document an AIDS case in India.
Eighteen years hence, her contribution to AIDS has only multiplied manifold. Today she runs YRG CARE standing for Y R Gaitonde Centre for AIDS Research and Education - a non-governmental organisation dedicated to AIDS research and education which includes Indias only AIDS speciality hospital in Chennai. Started in 1993 with just three employees, its staff strength has grown 107 apart from volunteers.
Indias AIDS programme lacks adequate cash and is excessively focussed on prevention. To set this right in her own way YRG CARE blends AIDS prevention with care and education.
In order to shield YRG CARE from funding problems, she devised a model whereby sufficient money would come from research projects. The organisation presently handles 15 projects for US universities and Federal government. Money raised from these initiatives goes to taking care of over 5,000 patients.
Born into the Gaitonde family, involved in leather business, she was the only daughter and had to fight all the time with her seven brothers for
her share of everything. It is probably this which gave me the courage in life she says. When she applied for Medicine in Chennai, her application was rejected on the grounds that she was a Maharashtrian and from a forward community. When she heard that Director General of Health Services had come to Chennai from Delhi, she argued successfully with him against the discrimination and got herself enrolled in Madras Medical college.
It was this try and be different that pushed her into AIDS research. When most other researchers were toying the government line of no AIDS cases in India she chose to check it out. Also for a lady doctor, that too almost two decades ago, talking of safe sex, condom and working with sex workers, drug users was indeed a brave thing. Her family supported her to the core and when they realised that she could not achieve much by being in government services, they set up the Y R Gaitonde Foundation.
The success of her organisation has not tempted her to expand its presence to other places. Communication, she says, is the most important aspect in this initiative and has preferred to work closely with local organisation that have been doing good work in this field.
Today she has identified organisations similar to YRG CARE in whole of south India and has tied-up with them. My dream is to upscale this model to cover the entire country 63 year old Dr Solomon adds.
Naturally time is her biggest constraint. Her typical schedule is 9 to 6 at the office followed by home visits and conference calls late in the night.
She travels to US once in a month. She is also in various policy making committees and advisory boards. Gardening, music and her two year old Golden Retriever keep her relaxed. A triple by-pass surgery two years ago has not slowed her down a bit. But it had reminded her to develop the second and third line of staff at YRG CARE.
As a woman working in a system you will come under lot of pressure but one has to have the strength to defy them says Dr Solomon who can claim a rightful share in the advances in AIDS research and education in India today.
Her message to the people : AIDS today does not kill like before. One can lead a normal quantity of life. Though complete cure may not have arrived, a complete life is possible.