Lone tiger Sylvia is back by royal appointment

More than 25 years ago Sylvia Wright sold up and moved to India to help the poor and sick. This week she returned to Britain to receive an OBE from the Queen. Catherine Scott met her.

SO far, 2008 has been a mixed year for Sylvia Wright.

The year started with the news that she had been awarded an OBE in the Queen's New Year's honours list for her work with deaf children in southern India.

Then at Easter the former Leeds nurse was struck down with dengue fever, a mosquito-borne illness and hazard of living and working in one of the poorest regions in the world.

"I suppose I have been lucky," says Sylvia who celebrated her 70th birthday in January. "In all the years I have been living in India I have hardly ever been ill."

Although the dengue fever laid Sylvia low, there is nothing that will keep this determined woman down.

She returned to the UK this week and will be at Buckingham Palace tomorrow to receive her OBE.

For Sylvia such accolades are quite hard to bear. She gets more pleasure talking about her recent birthday party where 5,000 people came from miles around to celebrate with their "White Mother". She was blessed in three different faiths: Christian, Hindu and Muslim which she sees as the true reflection of her work.

"I do what I have to do," she says modestly. "I don't really give it too much thought."

Sylvia didn't decide to pack up her comfortable, happy life in Leeds at the age of 44 to move to a poor part of rural southern India for the glory. Far from it. A committed Christian, Sylvia was working as a senior nursing lecturer at the then Leeds Polytechnic. She had a big circle of friends, was active in the church and was very happy with her life and home in East Keswick.

"I started to get this feeling that I should sell up and go and work with the poor," recalls Sylvia. "I was very happy in my life and I rejected the idea completely. But it became more and more insistent over a couple of years."

In the end Sylvia sought advice from her local priest and then the Bishop.

"They said it was a calling from God and I had to obey it, but I didn't particularly want to."

Eventually Sylvia realised she had no option, and once she had made the decision it seemed the natural thing to do. She was then left with the decision of where to go.

"I wrote to Mother Theresa who wrote saying they didn't have anything for someone of my age, but that I could join the Order, but I had no desire to become a nun."

She learnt about a small hospital in Tiruvannamali, 80 miles west of Madras and decided to visit. She spent a few weeks touring the area and realised that there were very few health facilities.

"They had lots of problems, especially amongst the children. I thought 'I could help here'."

She went home, handed in her notice, sold her home and all her possessions and moved out to a country where she knew no-one.

She recruited five staff, and bought a van which they converted into a mobile health clinic. For four years she worked tirelessly visiting the remote villages in the Tamil Nadu region of southern India, often treating as many as 400 patients a day from early in the morning until after midnight. If she was unsure about any of the illnesses she was faced with she would write a letter to the hospital in Chennai for advice.

"It was hard work, but I was enthusiastic," says Sylvia.

She was warmly welcomed by all the villagers whatever their faith. "The population is Hindu and Muslim, but I explained to them that I did not care what their faith was, it had nothing to do with me and they respected me for me."

Realising there was a much greater need for health care services, especially for the children, Sylvia opened a 14-bed children's hospital in 1985. Since then the hospital has grown into a 210 bed unit with 14 wards, state-of-the-art equipment and dialysis unit. But Sylvia was not always so warmly welcomed by the authorities.

"The Indian government was quite suspicious of me at first, which I suppose I can understand. They just couldn't understand what I was doing in their country. I wasn't getting paid and I wasn't trying to convert people, I wasn't a spy, they just couldn't work it out."

After what she describes as a 'few difficult years' she started to work with the Indian Government on health initiatives, including HIV/Aids and TB.

In 1992, Sylvia started a school for 30 deaf children. Like the hospital the school soon grew and now has 230 children aged four to 18 with profound deafness. There is also a training centre for older children to learn skills such as tailoring and catering. She has also set up day care centres for severely disabled children.

All the projects are funded by the Sylvia Wright Trust which was set up by a group of her friends. With 500 members the trust raises more than 150,000 a year towards the 500,000 needed to run the projects. 100 of the children are sponsored.

"For 15 a day a child's entire needs can be catered for including their education, clothing and food," explains Tony Allinson, trust chairman.

As well as improving the health of the population, Sylvia's presence has improved the economy of the region where the average wage is 1. The school and hospital employ 350 people.

Sylvia lives in a modest two-room apartment attached to the school. Her day starts early walking her dogs, she then spends the day in the hospital before visiting the school to speak to the teachers. It is a hard life. In summer temperatures hit 110, followed by the life-threatening monsoon.

She admits that over the years she has been lonely, not for company, she is surrounded by hundreds of people, but for someone to talk to on a personal level.

Although she never married, she has three adopted children. Karpagam, now 27, was 11 when her mother died. She was suffering from TB and her father left her at the hospital as he thought she wouldn't survive. Sylvia did not hesitate to take her in.

She took Marugam in when he was seven months old and suffering from malaria. He kept in touch with his family and at the age of 23 like his "sister" has had an arranged marriage.

Soniya was discovered abandoned in a graveyard. She was very sick from exposure, but once again Sylvia managed to nurse her back to health. She is now 20.

All three children call Sylvia amar – meaning mother. These children are her family, but as one villager remarked at her birthday party, "Sylvia is a tiger because she walks alone".

"I do the very best I can. But I don't expect that I can save the world. I am a nurse and worked in hospitals before I went to India and people do die despite your best endeavours."

In 1997 Sylvia was awarded an MBE by the Queen who was visiting Chennai at the time. This time she has had to make a much longer journey; one of just a handful of trips she has made to the UK since she left.

She has no regrets. But when dengue fever struck, for the first time in more than a quarter of a century she wished she was home.

"People were so kind and kept offering me things, but all I really yearned for was beans on toast. I suddenly realised that I didn't want to die in India. I haven't finished my work yet, but I have no idea what the future holds, none of us do."

But in the next breath, and with a twinkle in her eyes she tells me of her dream to open a training centre for nurses.

For more information on the Sylvia Wright Trust contact Tony Allinson on 0113 2675735 or to sponsor a child call Angela Clark on 0113 2677660.

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