Human life over policies: live with the people to do good public health work, with Dr. Neelam Bhardwaj

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In this episode, Sujani sits down with Neelam Bhardwaj, a healthcare professional with decades of international experience. They discuss Neelam’s research interests, the projects she has led around the world, and what she has learned from her extensive career. 

What You’ll Learn from this Episode:

  • How Neelam found her way into public health through her medical and clinical training
  • Neelam’s research interest and her work in women and children’s health 
  • Neelam’s experiences working with international organizations such as UNICEF and the United Nations
  • The various projects and initiatives Neelam has led around the world
    • What she has learned working with different cultures in the world
  • Where to start if you are thinking of working at the international level
  • How to focus and work towards your passion
  • What Helplife Global is and what inspired Neelam to create it

Today’s Guest:

Dr. Neelam Bhardwaj has over 30 years of experience in the medical field. A highly skilled doctor, she currently works as a social obstetrician, wellness practitioner, and a global public health expert in the area of reproductive, maternal, newborn, child, and adolescent health (RMNCAH). She is driven by a passion to empower young girls and women from the underprivileged communities. 

Neelam has 20 years of her career working for international health, of which 15 years she spent as a technical expert for maternal and child health with UNICEF in number of Countries in remote and fragile settings, e.g., Indonesia, Sudan, Uganda, Malawi and India. She contributed to improving reproductive health of girls and women while at UNFPA, HQ NY. She worked with International Rescue Committee (IRC), in Sierra Leone, and PATH India in setting up the innovative approaches in remote areas of countries, and supported cultural practices, to save the lives of women and their newborn babies. She has been recipient of several national and international awards, and has many publications to her credit.

Neelam earned postdoctoral degrees in medicine and healthcare management from universities in India, and received a diploma in Reproductive Health in Developing Countries from the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists and Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine in the United Kingdom. She is an active member of the Compassionate Birthing Network, & research that will preserve good cultural practices. She is known for her transformative leadership. She spent 15 years in researching disabilities in young women and girls, developed an innovative model of sustainability and development for the most vulnerable sections of the society.

She is a motivational speaker for the most vulnerable who have lost all hopes of living a life of dignity and self-esteem. She is a great storyteller for women living in adversity. Her innovative business model for making young women and girls financially independent, and living a life of respectful citizen is attracting many other partners. She saved many young women and girls to be further pushed into poverty during the Covid-19 Pandemic. Her workshops, “innovating minds” are becoming very popular for motivating young people especially with disabilities. She is an active member of number of women centric platforms like collaborative Birth Equity, love as the Force for healing, International Society for female professionals (ISFP), and Better lives foundation (BLF) U.K.

Featured on the Show:

Episode Transcript

Neelam 0:00
So don’t leave your passion. Don’t leave, don’t get scared and you know things, nothing can stop you. You can fulfill your dreams. It doesn’t matter how many problems come on the way, public health is the way to go.

Sujani 0:17
Welcome to PH SPOTlight, a community for you to build your public health career with. Join Us Weekly right here. And I’ll be here too, your host Sujani Siva from PH SPOT.

Hi, Neelam. And good morning, and welcome to the PH SPOT podcast. And I think just spending the first 15 minutes kind of chatting with you and hearing a little bit about your life has just gotten me so excited about our conversation today.

Neelam 0:46
Yes, good morning, Sujani. And I’d say the same here for me. I’m also excited to talk with you because you’re doing some amazing piece of work for all the public health professionals.

Sujani 0:57
That means a lot. Thank you so much. So Neelam, I heard a little bit about how you discovered or you got into the work of public health. That’s kind of the first question that I always start with my guests is how they discovered that there’s this area of public health. So I know through your medical training, you were kind of introduced to the field of public health as a potential, you know, area to go in practicing. But did you or were you aware that such a field existed even prior to that?

Neelam 1:29
Sujani, this is very, very pertinent question for someone like me, 30 years back, this subject had no standing. Nobody wanted to go into public health. And it used to be called as preventive medicine in India. And I wanted to become an obstetrician and a clinician, but you know, by default, I come from a state which is like, was privileged, it’s called Jammu and Kashmir, you must have heard about it. And this, they had a policy that if a girl gets married outside the state, then she does loses all her rights of education and others if she leaves the state. So I got married outside the state, my husband is from Punjab, so I had to move out and we came to Delhi, so I could not get my postgraduation in my own institute. So that was the reason I could not get into the clinical practice of obstetricians and gynecologist, and then I had to compete with, you know, all India examination, in which of course, we were not favored, because we are from different state. And so the way we got into non clinical subjects, and it was very, very disappointing for me that, oh, my God, I want to be a clinician anymore. But then, you know, maybe I don’t know whether we’ll call it a destiny, but I got a very good guide by a professor. I told him that, listen, I wanted to be a clinician and I have learned up here, I don’t know what to do with this preventive medicine. I mean, there’s nothing but people just to talk about sanitation. And then you want to be a doctor, you want to do surgeries, you want to do so many other things. So he told me listen, he was so positive in life and he taught me listen, Neelam, you have to learn one thing in life, what do you want to do, I said obstetrics, go to the field, do obstetrics. So I keep quoting him again and again, because he’s the one who showed me to torch that light. If you want to practice obstetrics, go to the field, a lot of women don’t even know, they don’t even have safe delivery kits. A lot of women are dying, you don’t know. Go and meet them, talk to them, research them, and that will be a public health. So that is how I was introduced to public health by my very good professor who kept me very positive. And then I did my research statistics on maternal health in the state of Uttar Pradesh and very poor districts. And the women didn’t even have food to eat. And then I could realize that, yes, this is something that we should be looking at. And slowly, slowly over the years, I realized that this journey is so important, and this public health is so important, and how we ridicule the subject is not good, including medical students. They don’t even want to read it and you know, they keep few days in the end to give little attention to the subject and just want to just pass it and keep it on the side. Most of the students in our times used to go for clinical medicine. So today, I think things have changed over 30 years. I’m seeing how public health has grown over the years. And in last two years when the COVID has stopped us, I think public health has got automatically, it has got a different respect. Everybody wants to read what is happening in the communities. Nobody wants to talk about hospitals or clinical medicine anymore. So I feel very happy you know that, you know, I did the right thing, though. At that time, I thought it was not the right thing to do at all.

Sujani 5:07

Neelam 5:07
I mean, I would say that I struggled a little bit. I mean, life was a journey was quite a struggle. But in the end, it was very rewarding. So I don’t know how you’re going to talk about my- my journey, because it has been very spectacular in terms of achievements that I did in emergency duty stations while working with United Nations 20 years. And now being in New York also monitored 39 countries while sitting in headquarters. So it has been an amazing journey, it has been very, very amazing journey for me, Sujani. That’s what I would say.

Sujani 5:43
I know exactly how we’re going to do this is by having you on the podcast many times to cover the breadth of all the work and great stuff that you’ve done around the world. I think the lesson that your professor gave you is quite important. And I think that’s something everyone can take, whether they’re practicing medicine or not, because I think at times you’re given a certain role or position, and it may not align with your passion. But I think there’s always an opportunity to see how you can kind of take that role and make it fit your needs and your desires and your passion. And I believe that there’s always something that you can kind of add to that role to make it your own.

Neelam 6:30
Absolutely. Absolutely. And he is no more, and I still keep quoting him all the time. Because if he had not told me what what he told me, I wouldn’t be here and I would be frustrated doing another post graduation getting into some clinical practice. And then very few.

Sujani 6:46
Yeah, so that passion or interest for maternal and newborn health, whether that was through clinical work or in public health, is that something that you had, you know, when you were younger? Or is this something that you discovered through your medical training?

Neelam 7:02
To my medical training during my post graduation, and when I got to interact with pregnant mothers, and I started working with them, and understanding that how nutrition is important, how taking care of them is important, what is it that they don’t have, they don’t deliver without assistance of any medical professional around. And those were the days when we were working with traditional birth attendants. Over the years, you know how the government’s stopped attention, but attendance to you know, get closer to women. And there were times when women were left with nobody around. And most of the villages still, they were taking care from their mother in law’s or some relative to deliver babies. So have gone through different, you know, stages in the progression of also understanding how the mothers have been treated over the years in childbirth.

Sujani 7:02

Neelam 7:02
So this whole journey, you know, if I talk about this, I developed birthing models in different countries. Of course, I started with India, but then I, I set up a program for maternal health in Sierra Leone, which had nothing. And we can talk separately some other time on Sierra Leone, because that’d be very interesting. And then I also developed birthing models for Uganda. When I was posted in Kampala, for Cara Mahajan community that is a tribal community in north of Uganda, with highest maternal mortality. And I did some amazing innovations there, which was coming back from my experience of conducting a randomized control trial in Maharashtra on over 700 women pregnant mothers, randomized controlled trial, that squatting position was better than we thought we position, work on that. And amazingly, I must tell you that first price in clinical applied research, I got in actually Montreal in Canada. Yes, yes. So that work I kept doing because I realized that women want to be close to their culture.

Sujani 7:02

Neelam 7:05
Working position was very close to you know, this was a practice that was very close to the culture. And this is a nice. I kept studying it and not, I didn’t leave it for 15-20 years, I kept on devising new cushions using them in different countries. So it was also amazing research that I did in innovations. And then I tried to bring technology into it. And it created a great package for Uganda, which was like appreciated by you know, the Prime Minister’s that the health minister then became prime minister. And then we had a great global initiative call into action, promise renewed for child survival, which was linked to UNICEF New York headquarters and then globally with the country, Uganda, Kampala. And that was, I would say a very great achievement for me because I coordinated the whole event by myself. So that gives you, you know, these are some proud moments that they automatically come to you and you don’t have to think about it, you know, they just come to you and the country wanted that, oh, this process, this whole thing should be rolled to the whole country, but you know, that you will also have their own systems and processes, and we can never move the way we want to move and reach as many people as we want to. But still, the public health is only the way that you can meet maximum people, maximum women in trouble, most vulnerable people, you can really target them if you are in public health. But if you are just a clinician, you have a very small vision of treating only one person. So it’s like understanding the public health needs of today are more important today than the clinical needs of like, that will be of course, a parallel medicine that will go along with us. But public health remains more important piece in your life today.

Sujani 10:53

Neelam 10:53
You know, I did this, I developed this birthing models in different countries. And today, I am part of the network, the Compassionate Birthing network. So I am part of an alliance, I’m part of number of maternal mortality networks. So this story just tells all the younger generation if they are listening to me, that they should not keep jumping from here to there, whatever patient they have, whatever they decide, like, for me, mother, and mothers and newborns, and keeping them healthy, is very important to my heart, and I will keep on doing it even in my sleep. So when I when I see that now, the list and anxiety and so many problems that even USA suffering and underdeveloped countries are suffering for all those women who are pregnant. And because of stress, they have different kinds of issues that are coming up are very different from what I’ve seen in the developing world, right. So in developing world, you have women who don’t have doctors, they don’t have care. I’m not an expert caregiver, like you have in developed world. But then you can provide them those things. But if you don’t, if you’re not mentally healthy, if you don’t have community support that we don’t have in developed world, then things may be different and more difficult to treat in these countries. So there is no win win situation anywhere, we have to work a lot. And I keep telling you nowadays after COVID my phrase is love the pregnant, I keep telling people please love the pregnant. So if I’m saying this, you know, on your- this platform, whosoever listens to they are like forced to think, what is love the pregnant? Are we- are we not loving them enough? Some people may think, Oh, of course, we are doing a great job. No, we forget that this baby that is being brought up in the womb of the mom is taking not into nutrition but everything from the mother.

Sujani 12:41

Neelam 12:42
Not only the food and the other needs, but the emotions. Stress, everything is going to the baby also. So I think it’s high time we understand that you don’t see baby for nine months. But babies there. So I keep seeing love the pregnant. This in the developed world, my dear.

Sujani 13:01

Neelam 13:02
Including you maybe I think you know you’re very young. And I’m not sure.

Sujani 13:06
Yeah, I just I had my baby last year. So he’s one years old now. So yeah.

Neelam 13:12
Lovely. So you can you can relate to what I’m saying?

Sujani 13:15
Oh, yeah, very much very much.

Neelam 13:17

Sujani 13:17
How did you you know, get into working at the international stage because you graduated from your medical studies. And you were saying that you also went to teach for a while. And that was in India as well.

Neelam 13:30

Sujani 13:30
Was it you know, at the similar timeframe that you then joined UNICEF and then started building a career working at the international stage?

Neelam 13:39
Yes. So I actually taught for eight years and-

Sujani 13:42

Neelam 13:43
As I told you that our journey was too difficult. We never understood public health, we never took it as a profession, right? When we always used to say, oh, we should have been clinicians, and that state for a long time at the back of our minds. And then people will say, Oh, Indian degrees are not enough. So then I recommend for you know, studies, I did a diploma in in reproductive health from Liverpool, where I learned the situation of other pregnant mothers in the developing world. And I wanted to work for international health, but I never actually thought of having any career with United Nations, because public health was not important. So never understood that you and was linked to this kind of work. With my hard work that I did for years and years along with my teaching job, I was still going to the rural villages, and I had taken around 60 villages while I was in Maharashtra, in Pune, and 60 villages I used to go by myself with my social workers and development, production and squatting position of delivery had number of awards on that work, appropriate innovations in appropriate technology in birthing. I did a lot of work in that I can share with you. Or maybe some other time you can speak on that. So doing that work together, brought me a lot of laurels and you know, acquisition, which I never understood. And then third Oh, so that is why I’m not in an operation theater, conducting a civilian section. So if I was doing that, I wouldn’t have done what I have done. And what came to my mind when I was standing at the stage in Montreal in Canada that, did this has come to me because I did something different that others were not doing. So it was not part of my perception, I never knew that this will turn out to be so beautiful. So most of the things that have happened in my professional journey were by default, because those days, everybody just wanted to be a clinical doctor. And never wanted to be in public health. So for me, it was more of, you know, a professional by default, you know, that I got into public health, and that I did this some amazing things. And this journey just kept going, you know. And then one fine day, I was also a professor teaching in medical school, I was teaching public health. For eight years, I taught in the universities, and I also taught for one year in Liverpool, in women’s health. And so this gave me a chance to teach internationally also, for one year, I went abroad and stayed there and, and taught students and then came back. One Friday, I just got this advertisement of a position and safe motherhood with UNICEF, and then I said, Oh, it seems like they’re looking for some work that kind of the work that I have done. And then I just applied for it. And my husband said, yeah, you always say that you’re going to get this job. But there’s some inclination in my mind that I’m going to get this job and I really got it. And that is where the journey of United Nations started with UNICEF. 15 years with UNICEF was so great, so fulfilling, amazing journey with UNICEF, and then for years with UNFPA, at headquarters, understanding reproductive health in young people and the problems that we are facing with young people in reproductive health. So it is such an amazing journey to tell you that the number of stories that a candidate with you to tell you that it was so fulfilling to be with United Nations and also have interest in teaching in medical schools.

Sujani 17:14

Neelam 17:14
It was great. Yes.

Sujani 17:16
You know, what I hear throughout the stories that you’re telling is, I can feel the amount of joy that you have. And I also feel like how proud you are of yourself? Yeah, I’m curious, like, were you always proud of the work that you were doing in the moment? Or is this kind of something that you’re reflecting on? And now that you’ve built a career over the past three decades, are thinking, Okay, this is some great work, or were you always telling yourself, like, I’m doing amazing work. This is just, you know, the best I can do. And, you know, early professionals, I’m sure you hear them, they can be hard on themselves, there’s always imposter syndrome, there’s always, you know, thinking maybe I’m not doing enough, I’m curious to hear how you were kind of when you were an early professional,

Neelam 18:00
I think it’s what you’re gonna want, especially when you- you’re not sure what you’re doing right. In the beginning, as I told you that this is not what I want you to do. And then suddenly, this profession then this route that you have taken, the journey that you’re taking, is giving you some good results, you know, like a stitch gaming, Sujani, when I stopped applying for awards and positions, because I was winning every award when I was presenting my work on cultural practices on squatting position. So I started feeling is it only me, can i be given a chance, I stopped doing that. So I at least a level where I was really proud of myself, kept doing what I was doing. And something, you know, extents was telling me, I was doing something right. That’s the only thing I understood that I was doing something right. And that gave me a lot of satisfaction. And then I would want to reflect and say it was the passion for the women and children of the world that I had, from the beginning. As I told you, I was not somebody was money minded wanted to make a lot of money. I just wanted to be a charitable person, I wanted to help people. So that was already there. And through the jobs that I had, I kept on helping people like, you know, if you go to Sierra Leone and touch the kind of poverty and live that poverty with other women, you understand, Oh, my God, I’m at the right place. So this kept happening with me throughout my journey in different duty stations. So I just fell in love with what I was doing. So I think here, the answer to your question is that people have to, of course, we need to have a profession, we have to earn money. That is true. But what they need to do is they need to have a very tentative plan on what is it that they want to do that’s very important to explore.

Sujani 19:43

Neelam 19:43
Where is their passion? Where is their life that lives? Where is that they will do this and then not regret that is very important for them to plan and then know that everything doesn’t go as we planned, but there has to be tentative planning and understanding. Where does my passion lie. If your passion is supporting the men and their children, fine, if your passion is working emergency, go ahead. If your passion is going for clinical, go ahead. It’s very important to explore what is it that you want. If you want to do, okay, you want to do non communicable disease, go ahead. But don’t lose your passion. If you don’t live your passion, then it is like you know, when you fall in love with someone, you don’t care about that person’s weaknesses, you just love, you fall in love. And then later on, you may regret, that is different. But once you’re in love, and you remain in love, that’s fine, because life is all about loving each other. Right?

Sujani 20:37

Neelam 20:37
So you love what you do. But of course, if you ask me, if you had asked me 20 years back, maybe I won’t speak like that. Because the journey ended in a way that is more satisfying. And today, I’m very, very contented person, I don’t really jump on to jobs. And you know, I have to earn money. And I never thought like that. But I’m happy to teach again, I’m happy to, you know, be on other boards with advisory capacity. And then being Founder and Managing Director of Health life, I’m doing some amazing piece of work, which I’m sure you will give me a chance to speak about that.

Sujani 21:09
Oh, of course. Yeah. Just one more, I think kind of comment on that, it’s, I think you have to get to a point where you’ve explored various different, I guess, interests, obviously have the money that could sustain your life, you know, pay, pay your rent, and food and everything else. And then I think when all of that kind of gets cleared in your head, I find that maybe you get to a point in your career where you can really start experiencing the joy of the work that you’re doing. Because I- I often find the the younger kind of early professionals are often worried about, you know, student debt, and am I going to like the work I’m doing the the colleagues I’m working with. So I think there’s just so many things that we want to align to make perfect and a job, that sometimes the important part, which is finding joy in the work that you’re doing and following your passion falls, you know, secondary in that priority list.

Neelam 22:02
I agree. Because at some point, we also struggled, you know, to reach a point where where the work is very satisfying. And that I think, working with United Nations, you get that privilege that you don’t really need to think you don’t need to negotiate salaries with anybody.

Sujani 22:19

Neelam 22:19
You get automatically everything you become like an ambassador in that country, and the love and respect that people give you, that really takes you at a different level. You know, so if I was thinking at that point, when I began my career with public health, I never thought this would end like that. That’s absolutely true. And this was purely exceptional, you know, and someone who cannot practice someone who doesn’t know how to make money through practice. I don’t know, I thought I would have done it. Maybe I would have landed up teaching in a in a medical school. Yes.

Sujani 22:49

Neelam 22:50
I agree with you what you’re saying is absolutely right. So.

Sujani 22:53
Yeah. Before we talk about your, you know, nonprofit organization, I’m very curious, because you’ve gone to so many different communities and countries all around the world. And I’m sure the the practice of birthing a child is very, as you said, there’s lots of cultural elements that are part of it. In you being brought up in India, how did you get accustomed to those different cultures and really understand the women and their needs? Not having grown up in those different communities?

Neelam 23:28
This is a very good question, because this is the question that makes you feel that listen, you need to work on yourself, not others.

Sujani 23:35

Neelam 23:36
That is why we start that.

Sujani 23:37

Neelam 23:38
When I landed up in, you know, I had done the four years, with UNICEF, in Bombay, in Mumbai. And then there was this professor from Columbia University.. main was working with us through Bill Gates from patient project, women’s right to life and health, which I was handling in the state of Maharashtra. And after finishing, that project was a temporary position. And then I had some time in between. So I was told that, you know, there was a position with IRC, and they were looking for a technical adviser like me, and it was not they were not able to find one. And they were requesting me, would you go for six months to IRC and support the team there and being a person very passionate about, you know, pregnant mothers, I just happily agreed. And I said, Okay, I’m happy to go. So I without even understanding where I’m going, I just jumped on to the opportunity, and I went alone. So every bit of that was amazing and surprise for me, because, as you rightly saying, that Asian culture, the women are very protected the company from the societies that you know, work is very clearly divided into what women do what men do. And you know, it’s like more food oriented, community oriented life that we live in Asia. But when you move to Africa immediately, the problems and the life becomes totally different. So I landed up in Sierra Leone and saw the women there, not having enough food to eat and put the times there’s some not many of them meet only one time, in a day, I got that cultural shock. And it took me a lot of time to understand that, Oh, my God, this is how women live. And that is how women are dying in these countries. Because without naming the private practitioners, were not making any effort to make any interventions, if they were not paid any money, even if women died, they didn’t care. They were not, you know, moving their hands if the money was not going into their pocket. So that is the culture I landed up there, I was coming from very charitable minded community, doing a lot of charitable work. And then you meet a community of doctors who don’t want to really do a complete abortion on a woman who’s lying, who’s bleeding over the night, you know, these, these kind of incidences gave me sleepless nights. And I got more and more involved with that kind of work. So I did a lot of work in Africa. And that was also very amazing and very, very satisfying. And I had to change myself, the statement I made earlier was that, you know, when I used to talk to the women they used to sell digital tell me Oh, you don’t know, you will not understand. It was true. I kept listening to them. I developed a sense of listening. Yes, I don’t know do others professor. I was highly educated. I had so many degrees. But of course, I didn’t know. I didn’t know their culture. It was absolutely right. I learned so much from them. And they said, What I learned most by staying or living with them was that when women and newborns and children go through conflict, go through war, which is very, you know, drawn long term wars. It’s like, you know, you can say God contracted for long years, those wars have so much of effect on their siblings and themselves in their sight. Because they’re so negative, they immediately tell you, this will not work, this will not work, that will not work, they’ll keep telling you that. And since I was doing Appreciative Inquiry workshop, those days, we had a big program where we were we had a big component on rights, which was supported by Appreciative Inquiry, component of positive thinking that was being pushed into the hospitals where health partners were not giving, getting good salary, and they were not motivated, they were not doing good work. This one, the state of Maharashtra, to women’s right to life and health, I had, you know, mastered that technique of positive thinking. And I liked that because I was very positive inside by myself, even as a child. So my practice positive thinking, and I wanted to do do those workshops in those district hospitals in Sierra Leone. And I learned how negative people were how much negativity was there in the community. And that was my learning. And I had to adapt myself to their settings and tell them, Yes, I listened to you, but we have to heal. So the process of hope that I gave them, the healing started there for them. So that is what I want to say, to answer this question for you. That they started healing with me, they started you know, I started sitting with them, talking with them for hours, listen to the midwives, what happens to them how doctors behave? At one point I had, because you know, when you’re an international agency, and you’re working you there are a lot of policies that you have to adhere to. And at one point, there was a bleeding woman with incomplete abortion. And it was a Sunday and the hospital was closed and I got an emergency call saying that this lady is bleeding and the doctor is not there. Nobody’s there to treat her. So she will die. So this happened in the evening seven o’clock and I got so disturbed so what should i do so I took my you know, the vehicle, we went to the hospital and try to talk to the doctors in the afternoon doctor was busy with the practice this evening, but so we set them up today’s holiday, but I said the woman will die if you don’t complete her abortion. So you need to open the operation theater and you need to go that he said it will cause so and so, so much. No problem I said I will give you so you will be amazed I give him that money. Okay, and make sure that operation were open, the lady was taken inside, she was saved. And of course next morning I was- I was had to be produced in front of my country directly said Listen, how did you do that? You’re not supposed to do that is against our policy. Yeah, I said I right. I respect all the policies in the world but I first respect the life I wrote that night if I had not seen this woman.

Sujani 30:05

Neelam 30:06
So anyway, my country director got very annoyed. And then, you know, this sent some messages in New York headquarters. This is what Neelam has done. And then our country, our technical adviser who was working very closely with me based in, I think she was based in Boston or in New York, I don’t I don’t remember at that time. She said she did the right thing. Neelam has done the right thing. So you see this, this is the kind of journey that I have, this is what I’ve learned through people, what is right, what you should do, and what is your- how do you prioritize? Is it a life of that person, you will prioritize, or the policy you will prioritize, you will be on crossroad many times in life. So for that, you have to work on yourself, you have to become stronger and stronger inside, and you have to have strong willpower. And sometimes you have to just forego money, you know, you may have to take a lower paying job because you’re more passionate to do that work. So sometimes the younger generation has to sit back and think about what I’m saying, is it making some sense to them? Or it is only that you have to run towards the material world. So I think- I think this is an important message that that would go through our discussion that we’re having today.

Sujani 31:14
Yeah. That was, that was an emotional story. I- I think I would get in trouble many times, I could see myself doing that exactly what you did.

Neelam 31:25
Absolutely. But you should get emotional at the right time. You know, that is emotional intelligence. And that is how you save people’s life. And that is how we can be joyful together all of us.

Sujani 31:35
Yeah. I definitely want to hear more on another episode about the positive thinking. workshopping that you’ve done. But more importantly, I think your journey to founding help, like global, yeah, how did- how did that come to be? When- When did the idea for that kind of start in your mind? And then what are you working on today with that?

Neelam 31:55
Yeah, this is another amazing story that as a passionate person, you know, I was just doing charitable work. We used to do free camps, medical camps, me, my husband, and my father in law, who was a general in the army, with government finances, retired at that time. But he was also very charitable minded person. So he used to push us to do charity, and, you know, take us to the organizations where charitable work is done. So we did a lot of free camps for women and children, and dispense number of medicines. And along this journey, one of the lawyers friend, she came to me and she said, But why do you do it like this? Why don’t do- do it in a more organized manner, you register your own NGO, and then you know, you can do a number of things in a very organized way. And I said, okay, the idea is very good. But I am a teacher, you’re honest lecturer at that time. So it’d be very hard for me to take these two things together. She said no, not at all, because she was there to help me with the policies and other things, to put the system in place. And so this was an encouraging partner next to me. And she only gave me advice. I mean, she was never part of her life. But then she encouraged me so much, he motivated me so much, that I decided to register my organization NGO called Help life, and then having very strong value system that I was coming back with my background, there are no shortcuts to life, I spent two years during the lunchtime, I used to go to the charity commissioner’s office and find out about the registration of my NGO, and you know, how things work in other countries in India that people want to be given some extra money to push the fires here and there. And I was not ready to do that. So every every lunch break, I would go to charity Commissioner’s Office, which was it should take one hour exercise. So whole time for my lunch break was to go and monitor what is happening with the file of my registration of my NGO. So just to let you know, wasn’t a piece of cake that I just got it and you know, I did it. No, it was in a journey in itself. But I managed to get it registered in two years time. But it was fine. In the meantime, I was still carrying what my chatterbot that we were doing as a family. And then once the NGO was just stirred by another gentleman who was part of the volunteers in the medical camps that we were running. He told that listen, you people do great work, but you know the real problem, you people are not touching. I said what is that? So he told me a story of a girl who is disabled from polio. She comes from very poor background, very poor family. She comes to play lives in home, disability home, a school, which is, of course aided by the government. They have a lot of good food and and the quality of education is not good. Because the teachers don’t take them seriously, they say that, okay, so they’re anywhere disabled, they’re not, you know, great health community anyway, so they get good food, and they’re just promoted to the next class without having great results like, so, they were just passing them until they reach class 10th. So, when they used to reach board 10 class, they would all fail, because the quality of education was poor over so many years. So, then what happens is once they fail, they will attempt then they go back to their villages, and then they are married to some old man or sometime not married, and then they cook for their family, all their life, and they become more crippled, and they have miserable life. So the point of educating them bringing them to today and educating them is what a worthless exercise that men felt, because he was giving value education to these children going to their schools. So, well this also really, you know, I thought Yes, you are right, they should not go back, I mean, you know, they should go for further education institutions in Pune or in any other state is, but that’s not what is happening. And you know, that Maharashtra is a very progressive state in India. So, we there are many other states that are much behind in progression, if you look at the human index numbers, you will see that Maharashtra still at the higher level, I went into that, and I said, Okay, so what do so I had this, I had my own space. So I started understanding what are the problems with institutions that are run by the government. So they have a lot of money, they had good food, for children, to give them calipers, everything, but they were the quality of education was poor. So what I did is, I started another model, to practice and to research because I had research mind. So I decided to, to plan a model, which was improvised on the existing model. So what I did was, I made a concept of community living for these girls. So we started with six girls, so that there is no overcrowding. So we had this flat, which was quite good, you know, for 10 to 12, girls could easily stay there, but we kept we started with six girls in the beginning, in one part was the life office, and then girls would live there, learn there, get trained, you know, into their vocational trainees, they go to school colleges, from there, they would have their bank accounts, they would have their medical checkups every six months, they will cook for themselves. So it was about empowering those girls, you know, getting them out of that sympathy mode, you know, that parents say, parents also tell them, you know, you cannot do this, and you cannot do that. And that is how their life starts getting into misery and you know, life of sympathy and fear that their lives. So I started getting them out of that life. And so it was a process, you know, for 15 years, we run this program with great results, which I’m going to present now in room, I’m going in November, presenting the results of those 50 girls in house, girls have a quick program of help life were amazing. But then COVID stuck. And we had to send these girls back to their parents, those who had done well, those who had already finished their degree courses, they went back to their you know, jobs and whatever they wanted to do. But the latest batch that was with us had to be they had not completed their education, they had difficulty in going out they could not go to school, the colleges, school colleges were like, not working, everything was online, it was very hard for them to have studies online. So the some of the parents got COVID in the villages, they got worried. So we had to take a management decision that goes be sent back to the village, it’s just in their homes with their parents to be with their parents and help them. So we had to take a very tough decision and we had to stop this program and we started supporting them within the villages. The program was not stopped but was redesigned to support them within their communities and in their homes. So the program still goes on with a different face now. But amazing results of empowering people. So the to cut the long story short to tell you that the disability that I understood before getting into public health and studying disability for two years is very different. Like any other person thinks about disability, you see a disabled person, you feel bad about them, you don’t feel anything else, you want to give them calibers, you want to do that, but that is not what should be done. That is not what we should. That’s the last thing you should do with anybody. We should empower them, we have to tell them listen, you can do this, you can do that. And there are some amazing stories of these girls in from 50 Girls, I can tell you there were hardly one or two dropouts because of you know, either a disease or too severe that they could not go to the to the higher education or they got into some problem like you know, entangled with the boy in runaway one or two cases but rest of the girls you know, amazing amazing stories. So I am now very strongly, not really believing the belief, actually my hypothesis, I’ve come to believe that if the work we are doing in the in the public health with having these shelters and charitable way of doing things, government put a lot of money getting tuition should be run in a way that you give children, the environment, exactly same as what you do for a normal child. And then they have the capacity to beat their physical disability, and come to a level where they can be mainstream society may seem with a real society, that is how it should be. But what it takes it takes a lot of passion, a lot of understanding the time you need to devote with the communities. So let’s learn from this story for you is also the same, that you need to invest time you need to live with people you to sit with them, understand them, listen to them, only then you can do the real justice to public health that we have today.

Sujani 41:02
Absolutely. Was this your first exposure or introduction to working with individuals with disabilities? Yeah, okay.

Neelam 41:09
Yes, it was first, yes, I didn’t know that disability was so complex. And, and most of the damage that we are doing to disabled people was because of us, because of me, not because of give you an example, because like, we give a lot of calipers, you know, we have camps, you can push to everybody that nobody does any follow up. So while this girl’s was staying with me, I realized that girl has grown up, the caliphate has become small, short, the food has become big, and she’s having a lot of pain. So unless you go into the details of the story, because there’s so much used to living in pain, and in their situation, you don’t come to know that it is the wrong caliphate that girl is wearing. So how do you learn these things? If you don’t listen to people, if you don’t actually understand how things how we should look at them? The brains are normal, they only have physical disability, why should we instill fear in them? Why should we give sympathy to them, they are quite capable of doing everything. If you give them small, little physical, you know, tools to be with, like nice wheelchairs, good calipers, you know, you have follow up, and then they are there like any of the person. And I have some amazing stories to tell you on that front also.

Sujani 42:21
Like when you’re telling me these examples of each disability I’m sure is kind of unique to the individual and, and the sort of support and help they need is going to be very different. curious to hear and I’m sure you’ve thought about this, just given the work that you’ve done throughout the years. Have you thought about, like what a sustainable model that’s scalable, across, you know, different regions of the world? How can you take something similar that’s so individualized, per person and their disability, to then come up with a model that can be you know, scalable, help 1000s if not millions of individuals?

Neelam 42:59
Absolutely. The model is almost in making and COVID. Thanks to COVID, who taught me to push me to think about this model.

Sujani 43:08

Neelam 43:09
Because, as you know, that we had to send girls back home. And the downside of this model was it was not cost effective model. You know, we as a family was pouring a lot of money from ourselves also looking after the girls because they were brought up like any other child in the family.

Sujani 43:24

Neelam 43:25
And you have heard in brief about the facilities that we gave them the way they lived, there was no water, and many of them, there was nobody shouting at them, they were living by themselves, making mistakes learning, many times, you know, the board meetings, I was told that, you know, how long you want to keep a girl, you know, it becomes very expensive in two years, whether they learn or not learn, you know, we should send them back. But we as a family had taken a decision, including my children, what my son said, Mom, you want to do this work, go ahead. But unless the girl is financially secure, unless she has a livelihood, unless she has a job, she will not move out of her life. And I accepted that I learned that from my own children. Because, you know, I was at a crossroad with the board members and the work of the girls that I’m doing that because of seeing it become so expensive, because some of the girls were staying for years, six, seven years, eight years. And one girls also stayed with us for 10 years, until the COVID came because she had nobody to go back to, no family. So it was very hard. It was a it was not an easy program. But it was a wonderful experience of learning, which has pushed me to- to create this model new model after COVID struck and the girls went back to the villages. The downside is that the technology that you want to bring in from the cities, it’s easy for you to bring in the technology for the girls and the students to learn. But when you go back to the villages, the technology is not there. Then it becomes so hard for these girls to move at the same speed that we were, we were moving earlier with the girls in our schools, right? So the lesson learned is that you need to bring technology there. And you have to work a lot with their focus, and the way they are, because you’re not changing their environment, the enabling environment, it cannot be created, as we created in, in, in today in our Help life living in the community living. So that is a challenge when you start working with individual families. But there is always about if you’re very positive in life. And if you really think about solutions. So here this, these girls are not only empowering themselves, but also empowering their whole families. So the model that we changed into was that the disabled people, whether it is young women, or it is if they are women, or if they are men, we treated them together, you know, with the same lens like so we did not create any difference, or we did not promote girls more than men, because we realize that during COVID, men also, you know, were thrown out of jobs. And they also became jobless equally as, as the women, so they were all jobless. So basically, you know, we technically we could not exclude men. And so we try to we and we are now enrolling men and women both. So in this particular model, which is which is little more different from what we did for last 15 years to study disability is more promising in a way that now you’re bringing up, it’s more family centered approach, though focus is more on the girls and women, priority is given to the women but men are not ignored, they are equally part of this initiative. And there are 15 volunteers who are working hand in hand in pushing the program to different levels. So we are already working in three states of India now with this model. So what I do is Sujani, your interest is very interesting for you to know, because I keep researching in my mind, and there’s so much money and so many funds that come from international agencies from the government, I flowing into the villages, and then no results. So because it’s easy money for them, and then they get used to getting that easy money. So if there are 90 applications to help life, we take those applications, the joint on our online platform, we make assessment on the applications, we interview all these beneficiaries, and then they they keep saying yes, we want to work, we will work you’ll give us money, we will do this, that then you will be amazed that almost 50% of the applicants, after around 15-20 days, they say we’ve been joining this platform, but there’s no money coming in, you know, that makes things very clear for us that they are not the ones who want to work, they just want money. So my program, my this particular program, amazing stories that transformational stories that I will tell you at some other point, or maybe you will see them on on the website later, you know, after a week or so that these people who actually want to work, the people really want to work and should be given money are there with us. So what we do is once we understand that this person would wants to open a shop, but he doesn’t have money to put in in the stuff in there and then start working. So you immediately bring things you know, we put in his in his shop, and then you start selling stuff. So we start giving livelihood to all these people. So like this, we are talking about vulnerable communities. So my dream is to create remarkable future for these vulnerable communities who are not helped otherwise by anybody. So I we find these people, we empower them, we treat them if they have any physical ailment at that time, along with their disability. And then, you know, there’s lots of these very strong wellness program, medication is mandatory for everybody to have to get their focus on spot. And they have to get out from the idea of being, you know, getting sympathy from other people. You know, there’s a fear of living life, when they get out of that, that comfort zone. And then they start walking and wanting to start working on amazing results. They’re all on their own. And so this is going to be a sustainable model that I’m likely to very soon publish and then of course you will also know more about it. Yes.

Sujani 49:26
I love it. I love hearing about when founders think about the sustainability of the organization because I think that’s so important. Neelam, I don’t know we’ve talked so much. You’ve given us so much value in kind of the past hour that we’ve been chatting and I’m sharing and I have you on again in the future. But just to wrap today’s episode, I don’t know if there’s any parting words of wisdom or advice or tips that you want to share with our listeners where you know, often starting off their careers in public health or have at least decade of experience. So for anyone listening who just needs a boost of energy today, what’s something that you can leave us with?

Neelam 50:07
Yes, yes, I will definitely say that, you know, in India, there were 17,000 NGOs that forced to close down during COVID. And we, in fact, did more work. In two years, last year, I worked for redesigning the program, if I was not a public health expert, I wouldn’t have done it, I wouldn’t have skills to do it. I did it and the amazing, sustainable model that has come up, everybody would love to have. Because you see, I’ve put this system of transparency in place, I’ve put in the system of accountability in place. I am not there, I travel all over the world. They are not dependent on me. Anybody can go to help life and look at accounts at any point of time. There’s full transparency. I’m sure everybody loves to be associated with that kind of organization, and also create many more organizations like that, where money and the funds of international NGOs and governments is not wasted.

Sujani 51:01

Neelam 51:02
What better- better message I can give, Sujani, here, tell me. So don’t leave your passion, don’t leave, don’t get scared. And you know, things. Nothing can stop you. You can- you can fulfill your dreams. It doesn’t matter how many problems come on the way public health is the way to go. For me, at least, I would say that.

Sujani 51:24
Absolutely. Thank you so much, Neelam. This has been such a joy for me to hear about your amazing career so far. And I can’t wait to talk to you some more over the years.

Neelam 51:35
Surely, we’ll be in touch. Thank you. And thank you for your time, also, I’m sure we have a little bit about the time.

Sujani 51:44
hey, I hope you enjoyed that episode. And if you want to get the links or information mentioned in today’s episode, you can head over to And we’ll have everything there for you. And before you go, I want to tell you about the public health career club. So if you’ve been looking for a place to connect and build meaningful relationships with other public health professionals, from all around the world, you should join us in the public health career club. We launched the club with the vision of becoming the number one hangout spot dedicated to building and growing your dream public health career. And in addition to being able to connect and build those meaningful relationships with other public health professionals, the club also offers other great resources for your career growth and success, like mindset coaching, job preparation, clinics, and career growth strategy sessions in the form of trainings and talks, all delivered by experts and inspiring individuals in these areas. So if you want to learn more or want to join the club, you can visit our page at And we’ll have all the information there. And you know, as a space that’s being intentionally curated to bring together like minded public health professionals who are not only there to push themselves to become the best versions of themselves, but also each other. And with that, I can’t wait to see how it this is going to have a ripple effect in the world as we all work together to better the health of our populations and just have immense impact in the world. And I hope you’ll be joining us in the public health career Club.


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PH SPOTlight: Public health career stories, inspiration, and guidance from current-day public health heroes

On the show, Sujani sits down with public health heroes of our time to share career stories, inspiration, and guidance for building public health careers. From time to time, she also has conversations with friends of public health – individuals who are not public health professionals, but their advice and guidance are equally important.

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