Service in Sathya Sai Medical Mission
As a devotee who followed Swami from a distance, a late-night call from Dr. Narendranath Reddy, Chairman, Prasanthi Council in April 2011 was a life-changing event for me. I was requested to be part of the medical team taking care of Swami for a week during that fateful month when He left His physical form. This was my first visit to Puttaparthi and have Baba’s Darshan.
My Introduction to Swami and the Sai Mission
The events of the final few days of the Avatar in April 2011 are in the public domain and need no further elaboration. When I arrived in Puttaparthi for the first time, the mood was anything but upbeat. Nonetheless, it gave me an opportunity to experience the philosophy and culture of the Sai world – an alien world for me until then.
As I was approaching Puttaparthi, my initial impression of the place and the culture was however, one of awe and disbelief at the impressive facilities of the Super Speciality Hospital that stares at you all of a sudden from the middle of nowhere, on a country road, like an oasis of hope in a sea of despair. More impressive than the massive building, neatly manicured grounds and the ethically appointed interiors, is the way the hospital worked. It was a seamless machine that functioned round the clock with respect and compassion for the patients, who came from all over the country.
It was not just about the financial sacrifices of the dedicated doctors who earn far less than their counterparts in the outside world. It was even more about the silent force of myriads of Seva Dal volunteers that kept the hospital spotlessly clean and navigated the patients across the depths of the hospital.
Why me? And Why Now?
I often wondered why I got introduced to Swami’s Mission rather late in my life, although I had very close friends who had been in Sai fold for many years. I was aware of His teachings and His Medical Mission – but only as an uninvolved bystander.
My answer came when I came across this piece of information: in a message given to Charles Penn more than two decades ago, Swami conveyed, “Your mission has begun. Those are My words to you, My devotees. Each of you has a unique and valuable part to play in this lifetime. Only those whom I have called can serve Me”. After much contemplation, I concluded that only He knows why; my duty is only to cherish the opportunity and act – at least for now.
On subsequent visits to the Ashram, I started my medical pilgrimage and completed an exploratory tour of the medical facilities both in Puttaparthi, Bengaluru and the Mobile Hospital. A small group of devotees in the USA started to develop plans to start both educational and service collaborative relationship with the medical facilities of Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Medical Sciences. Unbeknownst to me, Dr. Kolli Chalam, Head of the Critical Care Department in the Whitefield hospital had been trying to collaborate with me for a few years – but without success. I met him during my first visit to Bengaluru and our ideas on medical education and service converged effortlessly.
My Life before April 2011
I have been visiting India, my motherland and contributing in a small way to medical education regularly for over three decades. Travelling back to India, conducting medical conferences, taking care of patients, organising community outreach events is not new to me. I have been travelling to India every year, many times more than once a year since my migration to USA in 1974 – a small payback for the gift of education I received in India. In the USA, I have volunteered for extended periods and led teams to manage natural disasters in Houston during hurricanes and storms. Having been privileged to serve in leadership positions in US professional organisations, I have been able to organise teaching teams and develop tools for community outreach to stop tobacco epidemic in India.
Neither Puttaparthi nor Baba’s Institutes were on my academic map during the three decades that elapsed after I left India. The opportunities for service seemed virtually unlimited, for those who see the divine in the underprivileged. However, I must confess that of all the activities I have undertaken and all the accolades I have received, my involvement in the Sathya Sai Medical Mission has been the most fulfilling and spiritually uplifting experience of my life. What made all the difference was the culture of the institutions built by Swami.
My Life after April 2011
After I started going to the Sathya Sai Centre in Houston, all I saw was loving, and caring people who did whatever they could for society. There was no unnecessary socialisation, gossip, solicitation or larger-than-life-egos normally seen in society. I decided to contribute whatever I could to the Medical Mission; and Swami made it possible by connecting me to the right people in the USA and in India.
In 2015, we started planning yearly Critical Care Medicine Updates for physicians and healthcare professionals every January. The First Annual Critical Care Update held in January 2016 was a two-day course with participation from the leading Indian / US faculty. It consisted of a daylong series of didactic seminars on the first day and “hands-on” small group sessions on the second day. There were two separate parallel courses for the regional Critical Care physicians and nurses.
In 2017, besides the Second Annual Critical Care Update and Workshop in Whitefield hospital, we added another daylong CME conference at Sri Sathya Sai General Hospital (SSSGH) in Puttaparthi under the enthusiastic leadership of Dr. Vinod K. Varma, Medical Superintendent, SSSGH. Now, the Primary care update in the General Hospital of Puttaparthi and Critical Care update in Whitefield are annual events, held every January.
In January 2018, the Third Annual Critical Care Update and Workshop in Whitefield hospital and a Second Annual Primary Care Update at the Puttaparthi General Hospital were organised. This time, we also added small hands-on group sessions to the Puttaparthi General Hospital in the primary care update.
The January 2019 programmes to be held in Puttaparthi and Whitefield hospitals are well underway. There is no question that we learnt as much from the faculty and attendees as they did from us.
Medical Screening for Hospital Staff
Medical professionals are notorious in neglecting their health and their family’s health. During our second yearly conference in January 2017, one of our Sai doctors, Dr. Sridevi Devaraj came up with an idea that perhaps we should screen the physicians, staff and their families of the Whitefield hospital. With strong encouragement from Dr. Sundaresh Dabir, Director of the Whitefield hospital, we arranged screening blood tests a week before our arrival. The results were reviewed and those with abnormal results or needing further consultation were seen by our team of doctors. It was interesting to note that out of over 100 patients screened many had abnormalities, such as newly diagnosed diabetes, dyslipidaemias, thyroid dysfunction, anaemia and vitamin B12 deficiency. Several cases were identified for booster Hepatitis vaccination due to low titters.
The Marvel on Wheels – the Mobile Hospital
In 2012, I had the privilege of visiting the Mobile Hospital, a unique gift of Swami. The idea was to take medical care to the doorstep of the needy – not the other way round, as is customarily done. This miracle on wheels is so unique that I doubt that such programme has existed elsewhere with the same fervour, for over a decade. The success of the Mobile Hospital can be attributed to more than 300 dedicated volunteer doctors, led by the innovative and dedicated efforts of the Director of the Mobile Hospital, Dr. Narasimhan. Recognising the uniqueness of this experience, we organised medical student rotations from the US medical schools, who considered this a most worthwhile experience.
Assessing Needs; Assisting Doctors
As we interacted with physicians at the Mobile, General and Super Speciality Hospitals, we were able to assess the need for equipment, procure them and teach its applications to end-users through workshops. Equipment such as mobile dental van, high flow oxygen system, and noninvasive ventilator have been of immense value to deliver the latest and the best healthcare to the patients.
Exploring Research Collaboration
The continuity of primary care delivered at the doorstep of the villagers for over a decade presents a great potential for academic scholars. In January 2017, under the leadership of Dr. Siva Sankar Sai, Director, Prasanthi Nilayam Campus and Dr. Narasimhan, Director of the Mobile Hospital, an exploratory meeting was conducted. Research leaders from India and the USA met via video-conference and some exciting opportunities have been identified for further work.
In July 2017, Dr. Arun Sreekumar, Professor at Baylor College of Medicine followed up on the initiative and conducted a “Research Methodology” workshop and several other capacity building initiatives thereafter. Currently, many projects are underway after review and approval by the Ethics Committee.
Swami Blesses the Conferences!
For many of us who have not been fortunate enough to speak with and interact with Swami, He has showered us with His grace, blessings and approval through Vibhuti manifestation in the conference brochure every year!
The theme of these initiatives can be summarised as follows:
Our philosophy is: “Build on each year’s success and introduce new synergistic programmes.”
Provide what is needed: (a) Sponsor medical educational exchange for generalists, specialists, nurses; (b) Procure equipment; (c) Subscribe to journals / books; (d) Sponsor surgeries; and (e) Motivate doctors to volunteer services.
Give what’s current through “Hands on” workshops and interactive sessions.
Foster Research – Network with USA and SSSIHMS researchers; set up mentoring schemes.
Spread the word around about the best kept secret – by word of mouth, publications.
Connect the resources, people and network with Sathya Sai Organisations.
Continuous needs assessment - while evaluating the effectiveness of the current initiatives.
Emphasise “Feel good vs Do good” initiatives – encourage sustainable projects and recruit volunteers to staff these projects.
What’s in the Future?
We propose to pursue “His” work with His core philosophy firmly established in our minds.
“Where there is Faith, there is Love; Where there is Love, there is Peace; Where there is Peace, there is God; Where there is God, there is Bliss”.
– Sri Sathya Sai Baba
– The author is Professor and Programme Director, Critical Care Fellowship, Department of Medicine, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, Texas, USA.