American College Of Surgeons - Inspiring Quality: Highest Standards, Better Outcomes

2018 Surgical Humanitarianism Award: Nandakumar C. Menon

Dr. Menon teaching nursing students at the ASHWINI Adivasi School of Nursing

Dr. Menon teaching nursing students at the ASHWINI Adivasi School of Nursing


Nandakumar C. Menon, MB, BS, FACS, a general surgeon from Gudalur, Tamil Nadu, India, received a Surgical Humanitarian Award for the decades he spent providing sustainable, equitable medical services and training to the indigenous Adivasi people of southern India through the Association for Health Welfare in the Nilgiris (ASHWINI).

Dr. Menon, director of Gudalur Adivasi Hospital (GAH), left a successful practice in Winchester, NY, in 1990 to go to the remote Gudalur valley in Tamil Nadu’s Nilgiris district with the goal of establishing a health care system for the Adivasis, a historically reclusive population due to years of persecution and subjugation under colonial rule. Their reluctance to interact with outside groups left them cut off from modern medicine, and many died from gastroenteritis, pneumonia, childbirth-related complications, and other treatable conditions.

In response, Dr. Menon co-founded ASHWINI, a charitable organization with a unique vision—to create medical institutions that the Adivasi people would own and manage.

Early on, when the facility was a rented building with a few mattresses on the floor, an examination room under a staircase, and an austere 8′ x 6′ operating room (OR) with a homemade operating table, Dr. Menon primarily operated on emergent trauma injuries from farming accidents or animal attacks. He also performed nonsurgical treatments on pregnant women with eclampsia and patients with tuberculosis. He even returned to the U.S. briefly to learn how to administer anesthesia.

These and future treatments were made possible through Dr. Menon’s most enduring accomplishment—training and preparing the Adivasis to participate in their own collective health care through ASHWINI. Motivated young people were trained to staff the hospital as nurses, lab technicians, and community health workers. Major decisions were taken in consultation with the community at large, which was capable of giving valuable feedback because many of its members were a part of the health care team. Guided by Dr. Menon, the Gudalur Adivasi Hospital has transformed from its humble beginnings into a 50-bed secondary care hospital. Opened in 2014, the facility houses a maternity ward; outpatient clinics; diagnostic facilities, including a general and microbiology lab and an imaging department; blood bank; endoscopy suite; and a full surgical complex. In 2017, the ASHWINI Adivasi School of Nursing opened to provide further training to the community, and 20 young women have enrolled. Throughout all these changes, the hospital and associated primary health care outposts remain managed by the Adivasis. To date, more than 100 members of the community have completed training, and many continue to work with ASHWINI.

Dr. Menon has been a consistent advocate for the system and has received donations from Indian and international funding agencies to support its programs; implemented a sickle cell disease care plan that the Indian government uses nationwide; and created the ASHWINI Disability Center to provide aid to disabled individuals, among other accomplishments.

Robert E. Cropsey, MD, FACS

Robert E. Cropsey, MD, FACS
Robert E. Cropsey, MD, FACS