For Sue McCarville, nursing was more than a career. it was an adventure.
She took her nursing skills to help people in India four times and once to Tanzania in the 1980s and ‘90s.
Recently, she returned to southern India where she visited with her host family while working as a volunteer at the Stella Maris Charity Clinic in Ammanpettai.
“I’ve kept in contact with my host family and a few other friends,” McCarville said. “This year, I had the fortunate opportunity to return. The son of my sister in my host family got married this summer and I was there for the wedding.”
McCarville described the wedding as a four-day event, with two days set aside for the groom’s family and two days for the bride’s family.
“You eat constantly from morning till night,” McCarville said. “They make massive amounts of food.”
Instead of polates, meals are eaten off banana leaves, which are then thrown out into the streets to feed the cows.
She was also showered with gifts of dresses and bed coverings.
Volunteering in India
When she first went to India, McCarville volunteered through an agency called Option. She was sponsored by her parish, Our Lady of Lourdes in Milwaukee.
“Ever since I was a kid I was interested in learning about foreign countries,” McCarville said.
She also had a lifelong desire to serve others. Shortly after high school, she worked on the American Indian reservation at Rice Lake in northern Wisconsin. She later went with a group of Marquette University students to Appalachia in 1978, working with the elderly.
When McCarville first arrived in India in January 1982, she was shocked by the poverty and the challenges of providing health care in a small, rural village.
At that time, the clinic was the only medical facility within a seven-mile radius that encompassed nearly 10,000 inhabitants.
The roads were primitive, travel was difficult, and a six-mile trip in India in the early 1980s was more arduous than a 60-mile trip in the U.S.
“The people all had to walk. When it’s 110 degrees outside, that’s not a good thing,” McCarville said.
Men who could find work in the rice paddies made 10 rupees a day, the equivalent of about $1.10 in the U.S.
It cost nearly half a day’s wages to see a doctor.
Occasionally, donations would pay to provide free care on what they called American Mission Day.
“We had one doctor and four health care workers,” McCarville said. “We also had four out-station clinics that were basically a little hut out in the distant villages.”
She said the staff worked in the main clinic in every morning and at the out-station clinics in the afternoon, visiting each one about once per week.
“At any given time, the government could shut off the electricity,” McCarville recalled. “So we could have 30 patients waiting to be seen and the power goes out. We eventually got a generator.”
The clinic, which opened in June 1978 struggled to raise funds for equipment, supplies, medicine.
Instead of disposable syringes and needles, the syringes were glass and the needles had to be sterilized and reused.
“The first time I went there I saw a stone and asked, ‘What is this?’ I was told it was for sharpening the needles,” McCarville said.
After her first year in India, McCarville returned home and wrote a book about her experience, “An American Nurse in India.” It was sold to raise funds for the clinic.
“Proceeds from the book helped build a 15-bed in-patient ward at Stella Maris Charity Clinic,” McCarville said.
In her book, McCarville recounts some of the suffering she witnessed in India 30 years ago.
“I saw a 4-year-old dying of TB too far advanced to be arrested,” she wrote. “Lepers are too pitiful to describe. Cases of elephantiasis, anemia and infection could be met with constantly. Scabies proliferated everywhere like wildfire, ravaging the children. I saw babies smitten with scabies who were barely recognizable. These need only clean water and soap, but neither is available to most of their families. A bar of soap costs as much as rice for two days and they are starving as it is.”
In addition to her medical responsibilities, McCarville taught the children of the village.
“The kids started coming form the school next door every day, including Saturdays, and we had English class,” she said.
Children would flock around McCarville, calling her “Sue Auntie.”
“Normally, children would call a woman, ‘Madame,'” she said. “I told them, ‘Do you know what a madame means in the U.S.? You’re not calling me madame for a whole year.”
The mother of McCarville’s host family called her the Pied Piper because where ever she went she was followed by a trail of children.
A different India
While she was in India this summer, McCarville visited the clinic where she had volunteered her services four times nearly three decades earlier.
“It’s very minimal now because we have no doctor and unfortunately our hospital is temporarily closed because we have no doctors willing to work for such low wages in the rural villages,” McCarville said. “If there’s an urgent situation, we still have our clinic van and can take them to town for treatment.”
McCarville was also surprised by the changes that India’s growing economy had brought to the village.
“When I was there, the clinic was surrounded by rice paddies and farm fields,” McCarville said. “Today, all those paddies and fields have been sold and houses and shops have been built there. They even built a posh hotel with a swimming pool.”
Looking back at the hardships she endured and the lives she helped save, McCarville recalls one special moment.
In 1992, during her fourth trip to India, McCarville was recognized for her service by the bishop of Tanjore. He called her “Sue Auntie” and presented her with a sacred cloth that is usually given to priests and monks.
“It was a humbling, unforgettable experience,” she said.