Ida Scudder: Healing Bodies, Touching Hearts

Chapter 1
“The Devil Is Coming!”

Ida Scudder buttoned a long coat over her white doctor uniform. She then secured a veil over her hat to keep out the dust and headed outside. In front of the small hospital that she oversaw sat the brand-new 1909 Peugeot motorcar. Salomi, her assistant, and a female Bible teacher were already seated in the back seat of the vehicle. Around them was packed all the medical equipment they needed to run the Roadsides, the outpatient clinics they held in the villages that surrounded Vellore in southern India. Since no space was left inside the car, canvas bags packed with drugs and bandages dangled from either side of the windshield.

Ida had to admit that it looked quite a sight as she stepped onto the running board and into the front seat. Hussain, the driver, waved enthusiastically from in front of the car. He bent down and turned the crank. A cloud of oily gray smoke belched from the exhaust pipe as the single-cylinder engine burst to life and the car vibrated violently. Hussain climbed in behind the wheel, adjusted his goggles, and released the brake, and they were off.

Ida said a quick prayer for their safety. She felt she needed to because until a few days ago Hussain had never even seen a motorcar, let alone driven one. He had made a few practice runs around the hospital perimeter and declared himself ready to take Ida to her weekly mobile clinics.

“Look out!” Ida yelled as an oxcart stacked high with bags of rice loomed in front of them.

Hussain grinned and pulled on the steering wheel, sending the car careening toward a ditch. The bags of bandages bounced against the windshield, and Salomi screamed from the backseat. Schoolchildren ran for cover.

Hussain let out a whoop and tugged the steering wheel in the other direction. The car swung back the other way, narrowly missing the cart as they passed it. The startled driver pulled his oxen to a halt. Hussain waved cheerfully and put his foot on the accelerator.

“Slow down!” Ida demanded.

Crestfallen, Hussain eased his foot off the gas pedal. Eventually he managed to negotiate his way through the streets and out into the country toward the first Roadside.

The car had just rounded a corner when a group of field workers walking along the road turned and saw it. Ida watched as the men dropped their scythes and ran off into the fields. “The devil is coming! The devil is coming!” the men screamed.

Ida ordered Hussain to stop the car, and she ran into the field after the workers.

“We will not harm you!” she yelled. “It is us, the same people who come to help you every week.”

“It’s a devil. Look how it breathes smoke. An animal-less cart is bad magic!” one man yelled over his shoulder as he kept running.

Ida gave up the chase. Who could blame the men? This was the first motorcar they had ever seen, and Ida supposed it was shocking to them. She hoped in time to prove that the car was no devil. Rather, it would enable her to bring life-changing medical help to many more Indian people. Before the arrival of the car, it had taken her three times as long to get out into the country, and the bumpy rides on the lumbering, springless oxcarts had left Ida bruised and sore. She wished her father were sitting in the car beside her; he would have loved it. He had always looked for better and more efficient ways to serve the Indian people.

Ida smiled and shook her head in astonishment as her thoughts drifted back to her parents and her childhood. She could hardly believe that these medical trips into the Indian countryside were now part of her life. Ida had been born in India, where her father, and his father before him, had served as a medical missionary. Growing up, Ida had been sure of one thing: she would never follow in her father’s footsteps. In fact she was angry whenever anyone suggested it. Instead she had wanted to spend the rest of her life in the United States, keeping the horrible images of dying Indians and starving children as far away as possible.

But now here she was, living and working in India as a missionary doctor. As the car bumped along the curvy dirt road, Ida smiled again in amazement. She never could have foreseen the strange set of circumstances God would use to lead her back to India, or the unexpected twists and turns along the way.

Chapter 2
A Better Place to Live

Ida, come here. Mama needs you.” Ida heard the call from her hiding place behind the big water jar in the kitchen. She peeked out and saw her mother walking toward the door. Something about the way her mother walked made Ida pay attention instead of turning the search for her into a game. Ida slipped out from behind the jar and followed her mother.

As she stepped out the door, Ida was shocked to see hundreds of small children being marched into the backyard. As the children entered the yard, Ida’s two older brothers organized them to sit in rows.

“There you are,” Sophia Scudder, Ida’s mother, exclaimed, putting her hand on her daughter’s shoulder. “Come with me. You can be in charge of feeding the children. Give them one chunk of bread each. That’s all they can have. Can you do that?”

Six-year-old Ida nodded, though in truth she was very confused. Her mother had never before put her in charge of anything, much less feeding hundreds of children younger than she was.

With a brisk efficiency that served her well as a busy doctor’s wife, Mrs. Scudder showed Ida the basket filled with broken chunks of bread.

“Start at the front,” she said, “and when you have fed a whole row, wave to Walter or Henry, and they will escort the children out the gate. Charlie will stand guard to make sure they don’t come in again. There is only enough food for one piece each. There are government guards outside to make sure no adults get in, as we have only enough to feed the children. Do you understand?” She knelt down beside her daughter, and Ida could see the tears in her mother’s eyes. “Just one piece each because otherwise there won’t be enough to go around.”

Sophia Scudder carried the huge wicker basket outside, where Ida began dipping into it and handing out the bread. Ida could barely look at the children she was feeding. They had the same deep brown eyes and flashing white teeth as the other Indian children she played with here in the village of Vellore, where her father was a doctor and a pastor. But unlike her playmates, the children in front of her had protruding stomachs and stick-thin arms and legs. As Ida moved down the rows, the children eagerly grabbed for the food.

Ida recalled how Walter had complained about there being no rice for dinner one night the week before. Her father had explained that there was a famine in India and many children did not have enough food to eat. Now, crowded into the backyard of the Scudder clinic were some of those starving children.

Ida would rather have been doing just about anything other than handing out the bread, not because she did not care that a famine was killing people but because she cared too much. She imagined herself in the place of the children, begging for tiny pieces of food that would not satisfy her.

Finally the breadbasket was empty, and the remaining children drifted out the gate.

“Come back tomorrow,” Ida’s brother Henry told them. “We will have more food then.”

That night at the dinner table, Ida felt guilty eating her rice and vegetable curry.

“Thank you for your help today, children,” Dr. Scudder said, looking around the table at his sons, John, Lewis, Henry, Charlie, and Walter, and his daughter, Ida. “We are going to need you again tomorrow. I have decided to set up a relief camp here at Vellore. We’ve sent for cartloads of rice and clothing from Madras, but that’s a hundred miles away and will take days to get here. Until then we are going to have to do the best we can. Your mother is going to be in charge of feeding and clothing the refugees while I tend to their medical needs. School will be suspended until the famine is over; there is just too much to do.”

Ida and Walter exchanged glances. Nothing had ever been serious enough in the past to interfere with the daily lessons their mother prepared for them.

As Ida lay in bed later that night, she could hear workers lashing bamboo together to make shelters for the hundreds of people already pouring into the relief center. She wondered how long the famine, and the lack of rain during the monsoon season that had caused it, would last.

The next Sunday Ida went to church with her family. Her father preached the sermon as usual, and her mother stayed afterward to talk with the young mothers in the congregation. Ida and her nanny, Mary Ayah, also stayed behind, and when Ida’s mother was finished, the three of them made the short trip back to the house in a bullock-drawn cart called a bandy. It was a very hot day, and the collar of Ida’s starched white dress dug into her neck. While Ida was trying to loosen the collar without her mother’s noticing, Mary suddenly exclaimed, “Ayoh! Look at those children!”

Ida turned her head in the direction Mary was pointing. Two children, about six years old, were lying at the side of the road. They had their arms around each other.

“Why aren’t they moving?” Ida asked.

“They’re not moving because they’re dead,” Ida’s nanny replied matter-of-factly.

“Mary Ayah!” Mrs. Scudder scolded. “That was not necessary.”

Ida looked away from the scene, but it was too late. The image of the two dead children was seared in her mind. She no longer looked forward to the dinner the cook was preparing for the family. All around her were starving people, and even the coconut and mango trees were beginning to die from lack of water.

Often, when Dr. Scudder returned from the hundred or so villages under his care, Ida would hear him and her mother in whispered conversation. Ida knew they were trying to keep the worst of the famine from her, but the stories she overheard terrified her. One time, when her father was taking two thousand rupees in silver coins to town to buy relief supplies, bandits attacked him. He did not carry a gun, but he pulled a long, black cigar out of his pocket and aimed it at the bandits. In the twilight they mistook the cigar for a firearm and fled without the silver. Another time, her father visited a village and found that the entire population had died, some of starvation and others from the dreaded disease cholera that was sweeping through the nation. Her father said that even the village cattle and dogs lay still on the ground.

Ida continued to help out as best she could, but she couldn’t relieve the strain her parents were under. Finally, in October 1877, the rains began to fall, and her father predicted that the first rice crops would be harvested by Christmas.

When the death toll from the famine and the cholera epidemic was finally tallied, more than three million people had died. Ida knew that her whole family had done all they could to help, but she was deeply affected to discover how many helpless people had died.

By the following April, Dr. Scudder’s health was in perilous condition. Various tropical diseases had so weakened his body over the sixteen years he had served in India that he now needed to return to the United States to recover.

The thought of going “home” to America was very strange to Ida, who was nearly seven and a half years old by now. Her two oldest brothers, John and Lewis, were eager to attend a proper school there, but Ida was not so sure. She wondered what America was really like. She knew she had lots of relatives in the United States and that her mother’s parents lived there. But as much as her family was rooted in the United States, the family tree also twined around southern India.

Ida had heard the story often enough—it was practically a legend. Her father’s father, Dr. John Scudder I, was a successful young doctor in New York City when in 1819 a patient gave him a pamphlet titled The Claims of Six Hundred Millions. The pamphlet was about the people of Asia and how most of them had never heard the gospel. As John Scudder read the pamphlet, he became convinced that he should go to Ceylon as a medical missionary. His wife, Harriet, Ida’s grandmother, agreed to go with him, and so he applied to be the first medical missionary ever to go out from the United States to a foreign land. He was accepted to go but at great personal cost. His own father disagreed so violently with his decision to be a missionary that he cut John out of his will and announced he never wanted to see his son again.