Sylvia Wright from Leeds sold everything she had and went India where she has transformed thousands of lives. Julie Marshall met her.
Many of us may have an attack of conscience when contemplating the fate of others less fortunate than ourselves, but how many would be prepared to sell everything they owned and set out to make a new life in a country we know nothing about? But that’s exactly what Sylvia Wright did when she was 44 years old.
Now aged 77, the qualified nurse, midwife and nursing tutor had a comfortable existence, owned her own home and had a happy, fulfilled life, but she couldn’t help but feel there was more she should be doing.
“I was teaching at Leeds Polytechnic (now Leeds Metropolitan University) on the nursing course and I felt that my life up to then had been very privileged. I was comfortable and I didn’t want for anything and I began to feel I should do more for people. There is a phrase in the bible which says ‘go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me’, she says.
Sylvia contemplated for a long time and spoke to the bishop who said he thought she had a genuine calling and should do something about it - so she did.
“Much to everybody’s horror I sold my house and land but then I didn’t know where to go and what to do.
“I knew about the work of Mother Teresa and wrote to her. She said she thought I may have a vocation to join her order so I went out to see what India was like,” she says.
“I’d never been to India before but I’m a Roman Catholic and I knew some nuns there so I went to see their small hospital which was in a very rural area.
Sylvia spoke to the local priest who told her there was a lot of work she could do.
“He took me around the villages and showed me the extreme poverty and how rudimentary the health care was and I thought: I can do this, so I went back to the UK, worked out my notice at the university and then went back out to India.”
She says: “It all sounds very easy but it wasn’t. Everyone thought I was quite mad but I thought to myself that I was young enough to start again if it didn’t work out.
“At first I found the climate difficult to cope with and I didn’t like the food but I never felt it was so bad that I couldn’t cope - though I certainly never thought I’d be there for 30 years.”
Buying a van, Sylvia equipped it with medicine and set up her first clinic, treating people spread across six villages. The hours were long and she often worked from 8am to midnight six days a week, with the seventh reserved for training her own team of medical staff.
The clinics became so popular that Sylvia was asked if she would set up a 12-bed hospital to help deal with the effects of the malnutrition which was rife at that time.
This first small hospital, which she opened in 1985, was replaced 13 years ago with a new 220-bed facility which treats 80,000 out-patients a year.
Before that her free boarding school for profoundly deaf children was already up and running and in 2004 she opened two day-care centres providing play and physiotherapy for disabled children.
Sylvia is now trying to raise funds for a purpose-built day-care centre for 100 children in the grounds of the boarding school to replace the buildings they currently rent.
In addition, three specialist wards have been set up at the hospital to cope with the effects of diabetes which is very common in India and causes cardiac and renal problems.
Two hundred deaf children attend the residential school with the majority of them sponsored. Sponsorship costs just £50 a month and the children are provided with free board and lodging, education and uniforms. Many of the children are profoundly deaf and have problems with speech but almost all now have state-of-the-art hearing aids, access to computers and English lessons from a very early age so their prospects of employment are greatly enhanced.
A number have gone onto higher education - funded in some cases by a bursary fund set up and administered by some of Sylvia’s friends in the UK.
Along with her well-deserved OBE and MBE Sylvia is very proud of the awards she has received from the Muslim mosque and the Hindu temple. Sylvia says: “Most of the children are Hindu and we have a few Muslims but we teach the children about all the different faiths and celebrate all the different religious holidays.”
The first nurses have now passed out of the nursing college after a four-year course and are now working in the hospital.
All the staff are Indian - Sylvia is the only westerner. Occasionally medical students from the UK come out to work for a while and there are usually two or three ‘gap-year girls’ helping out in the school.
Sylvia still plays a very much hands-on role and shows no signs of slowing down, although she has now handed over the day to day running of the facilities s to a team of managers. “I’m quite willing to take a back seat but I am integral to the place,” she says. “Around a third of the staff have been with me from the beginning. I suppose there will come a time when I have to stop but I’m very healthy. I’ve had malaria and dengue fever but nothing serious - I’ve been very lucky.
A group of Sylvia’s friends in the UK set up he Sylvia Wright Trust to raise money and awareness of the various projects; over the past 30 years, they have raised hundreds of thousands of pounds.
The 12 trustees, from all walks of life and faiths, do not take a penny from the fund - nor, in fact does Sylvia herself.
All the money raised goes into enriching the lives of the people in their care and paying the team of some 500 members of staff a living wage.
Sylvia is over in the UK at the moment - ostensibly on holiday but her diary is full of speaking engagements so she can promote the work of the trust and raise more of the much-needed funds to continue with her valuable work.
She has no regrets about the life she chose more than 30 years ago. “I made a decision to go and you don’t keep looking back and saying should I have done this or should I have done that,” she says. “I am very happy there.”