Dr. Roberts Hospital Shillong- A Century of Service to the People

By: Kyrsoibor Pyrtuh

The inauguration of the Welsh Mission Hospital on 25 March 1922, began with the hymn about hope and healing- “Oh thou through suffering perfect make…In hours of sickness, grief and pain. No sufferer turns to thee in vain”. The atmosphere on the Ceredig Hills at Jaїaw was filled with the splendid voices of students’ choir who sang beautifully under the leadership of Ms A.W. Thomas. The inauguration was also attended by the Hindus, Mohommedans, Khasis, Europeans and Eurasians.

The Hospital, which is also fondly and popularly known as the Roberts Hospital, is attaining hundred years of service. It is recorded that the Maharani of the erst while Princely State of Gwalior, the tea planters of Assam would made visits to the Hospital for treatment and also the Booker Prize Winner and author of God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy was born here. However, the story of Roberts Hospital is not about the Maharani or tea planters nor that of the renowned author, rather it is the zeal and selfless service for the health and wellbeing of the people, especially the poor and needy. We are indebted to the workers of the Hospital and those who had served humanity via this Hospital in the past 100 years.

The Medical Mission of the Welsh Presbyterian in the Khasi Hills owed its origin to Dr. Owen Richards, the first missionary doctor (1843-44). But the medical works of the Welsh Presbyterian began to take shape after the arrival of Dr. Griffiths in 1878-79 who had opened two medical stations at Mawphlang and Laitlyngkot and trained a few locals in medical works.

In fact, Dr. H. Gordon Roberts was dissuaded from establishing the Hospital as there was not enough work for the Hospital nor there would be any surgical work to be done. Moreover, like in the preceding decades, the natives Khasi remained averse to modern medicine. Therefore, the people were not willing to be treated inside the Hospital. This was the initial hurdle for the Hospital and during his address at the British Medical Association, Assam Branch, in 1926, Dr. H. Gordon Roberts not only acknowledged the fact that people resisted against the idea of in-patient treatment, but also embraced the need and challenges to explain the importance of medical treatment in the Hospital in furtherance of better health care. According to Dr. S. P. Sen Gupta, “…he was more impressed by the necessity for making adequate in-patient provision in order to secure the best results in many cases.” Nevertheless, he prevailed upon the Mission and eventually began his journey in the Hospital works.

Armed with the residues of fund collected for the earthquake victims in the Khasi Hills in 1897, Dr. Roberts began to construct the Hospital building in Jaїaw in 1917. He also went to England and asked for permission to mobilize funds for the Hospital. His project won many hearts in the church in Wales and the people gladly responded to his appeal and collected £ 30,000.

Since the early part of the 20th century the ingenuities of indigenous Khasis were immense and according to Dr. R. Arthur Hughes, “he (Roberts) had a collective of Khasi engineers with him who had an inborn talent in mechanical and engineering works. With ease they grasped the mechanical works and could fix anything, from assembling an X-ray machine to setting up a diesel machine or a boiler or steam laundry. They were self-taught individuals who sought to conquer new fields.” As early as 1924 local Khasis, which included Lesibon, Derila Paley, Estella Nongsteng and Iwelibon Tiewtaby joined the nursing school and aimed to serve in the Hospital. Yet another local genius, Dr. Drin Singh Hynñiewta, joined the Hospital in 1928.

Perhaps no resolution was taken by the Presbyterian Church in Khasi & Jaiñtia Hills to establish the Mission Hospital in Shillong. However, in the Assembly meeting held in the Mawkhar Presbyterian Church, Shillong in March 1923, it was resolved- “That the Presbyteries will collect funds for the Hospital Mission and the committee was formed for this purpose”. And the Mawphlang-Khadsawphra Presbytery was the first to respond to the call and during its Presbytery Meeting held in Mawthawpdah Church in April 1923, it resolved thus- “regarding the collection of offerings for the Hospital of Dr. Roberts at Jaїaw. It was decided to begin the collection from this current year; and that the different circles and sub-districts are given the liberty to deliberate and decide about the collections.” Similarly, in 1925 during the Assembly in Sohra it was resolved that, “For other needs of the Hospitals in Jaїaw and Jowai, it was resolved that the Presbyterian Churches across the Khasi-Jaiñtia Hills will dedicate one Sunday service for both the Hospitals. During the Hospital Sunday service, the faithful are exhorted to pray and preach about the Hospital and also offerings will be collected for the Hospitals”.

The resolutions taken in 1923 and 1925 respectively were significant and clearly indicated that the Presbyterian Assembly fully endorsed and participated in the medical works of Dr. H. Gordon Roberts in Shillong. The resolutions also expounded the core Presbyterian principles of self-reliance and self-rule and that the Roberts Hospital is the community owned Medical Institution which is founded upon the Christian value to serve the sick, the poor and needy. Over the century, the members of the Presbyterian Church in Khasi & Jaiñtia Hills and a cross section of the society contributed immensely through their tithes, offerings and donations, besides their indomitable services to the Hospital. 

Before the last batch of Welsh Missionaries left the country for good in 1969, the mantle of managing the affairs of the Hospital was already handed over to the natives and Dr. E.C. Syngkon was appointed as Senior Medical Officer and Dr. S.P. Sen Gupta as Chief Surgical Officer respectively. During the Synod meeting held in Pariong in March 1969, Dr. R. Arthur Hughes presented for the last time the report and stated about the great feat of the Hospital since its inception. The evolution in medical science and its efficacy had tremendously improved the health and wellbeing of the people. In the past, the condition of health care was such that 9 out of 10 patients would die from diseases and many would become paralysed or insane even if they survived. But today it was reversed and 9 out of 10 patients would be cured if those diseases were diagnosed and treated on time. Earlier we consoled ourselves when faced with such dilemma that death was the will of God, but now we could say with enormous faith that good health and healing was also God’s will, not just death. For the future, he counted on the zeal, expertise and wisdom of the native professionals like Dr. Romily Basaїawmoit, Dr. Frank Niangti, Dr. Jerisim Dkhar, Dr. S.S. Sharma. He made special mentioned about the new knowledge on the fields of Gynaecology & Obstetrics and medicine which Dr. E.C. Syngkon had gained and the experienced of Dr. Orientcey Roy in the field of anaesthetic. Thus, the Hospital was equipped with trained and experienced local professionals who would take the mission into new heights.

In 1972 the budget estimates of the Hospital stood at Rs. 10, 62, 000, the children’s ward and out-patient department were opened on the same year to mark the fiftieth anniversary. Also, the layout plan for the construction of operation theatre and surgical ward was prepared. However, over the decades the hospital was entangled in systemic failures and was suffering from governance and management deficiencies. On several occasions it faced the flak of workers and mass exodus of doctors, the last of which happened in 2015-16. The adhoc and patch work approaches to fix the problems had never worked until 2016 when the Special Business Session of the KJP Assembly held in August resolved to constitute the Special Committee in order to examine and propose new ideas for overhauling the system of governance and management. In turn the special committee sought the help of three experts namely, Dr. P. Lyngkhoi, Dr. Faith Rangad and Dr. Sunil Kaul and after an in-depth study they proposed the slew of reforms which are tenable and practicable.

The dreams for the Hospital to provide hope and healing are alive as ever. Unambiguously, Dr. R. Arthur Hughes reported to the church in Wales that, “The mission hospital had to perpetually exist. In spite the efforts made by the government to establish as many public hospitals and to produce doctors, but the hospital established by the church and which was well managed on the christian spirit of love, sacrifice and compassion could serve better and meet the needs and challenges of health care”.

The Roberts Hospital should remain the peoples’ hospital and forever provide access to free and affordable health care. The hospital was serving those patients who cannot pay the full charge and also those who were not able to pay anything. To remain true to its calling, the church body must ensure that transparency and accountability prevail in the governance and management of the hospital.

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