Sundargarh: Outside her house in Gargadbahal village in Odisha’s Sundargarh district, 45-year-old ASHA worker Matilda Kullu readies her bag and cycle before heading for work.
Wearing a neatly pinned blue sari, Kullu checks the bicycle’s wheels and puts required medicines, Covid kits and record-keeping material (notebooks, charts, pens) in her bag which she carries around 250 houses she is in charge of.
Kullu, who has been an ASHA worker for the past 15 years, featured in the ‘Forbes India W-Power 2021’ list along with Amazon head Aparna Purohit and banker Arundhati Bhattacharya. This is the first time that an ASHA worker has been featured in the list.
Her journey, however, has not been easy. Speaking to ThePrint, she recalls how she had to battle casteism, superstition, and there were days when she barely got any food to eat.
“Sometimes people thought I was the reason they fell ill because I went to their house. Such was the extent of their superstitions,” said Kullu, who belongs to the Kharia tribe.
She now recalls her struggles with a toothy grin and is focussed on imparting knowledge. She beams with pride when she says that the entire area she oversees is almost completely vaccinated against Covid.
Kullu’s day begins anywhere between 5:30-7 am, depending on the workload. After completing her household chores, she packs her tiffin and heads out to the field. She returns home anytime between 4-11 pm, at times even later.
Her work ranges from checking on pregnant and new mothers, testing for malaria, advising women on hygiene and contraception, holding meetings with anganwadi workers, and following up houses for Covid symptoms and vaccines.
Prior to being an ASHA worker, Kullu ran a stitching shop. She learnt about ASHAs through a self help group in her village.
The youngest of five children, she admits that she received a lot of love from her parents, but is also quick to point out the hardships they had to go through.
“There have been days when they had no food to eat. The situation was much better by the time I was born,” she says.
Kullu did face difficulties when she began working as an ASHA worker. During her field visits, she says, people at times would offer her water in a glass that they would refuse to touch later.
One of the incidents Kullu says she will never be able to forget was when she was made to sit on the floor of a government hospital and a dog came and sat next to her. This happened while she accompanied a pregnant woman with her family to the hospital for delivery.
On another field visit, a woman shouted at Kullu saying: “What do people from your caste think of themselves”. Kullu, however, says she kept returning to the lady’s house, who was suffering from malaria, as it was her duty to provide care. Years later, when her daughter-in-law had a baby, the woman told Kullu – “If you weren’t there, we would not have been able to manage.”
“Now when I go they sit and eat with me and have chai as well”, she says smilingly.
Dealing with the pandemic
For Kullu, dealing with the pandemic was challenging to say the least, as many villagers initially thought Covid was a “hoax” and feared they would die if they get vaccinated. However, through patience and guidance, Kullu was able to convince people in her village to get tested, isolate (if Covid positive), and get vaccinated.
Kullu had her share of fears too. It was when she tested positive during the second wave on 2 May this year. “The second wave was bhayanak (terrifying). I would think everyday whether I would be able to make it”, she said.
Kullu’s SpO2 levels fell to 84. During her quarantine, she would get anxious every time she heard news about someone succumbing to the virus. However, she quickly bounced back and was back on the field on 18th May.
“My TB patient needed her medicine, so I had to do everything to get better and tend to her,” she says as she talks about her journey to recovery.
‘Happy to get recognition’
On being featured on the Forbes list, Kullu says she is happy that ASHA workers are being recognised, adding that she feels validated after all her years of struggles.
“I like helping people. Seeing them healthy and happy makes me satisfied. I don’t want anyone to ever feel sad when they see me, even if it means burying my own hurt”, she said.
Constantly on the go, Kullu says she wants to share her knowledge and information with people and is happiest while assisting deliveries or saving someone.
“I am so lucky to be able to witness that feeling of mothers holding their children. And saving someone gives me happiness and satisfaction which no amount of money can ever give.”
She also has advice for other ASHAs just starting out — do your work diligently and success will automatically follow. “Not everyone is lucky to be an ASHA worker. You are lucky to have this opportunity. So work from the heart.”