Service to Man is Service to God
I first came into Beloved Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba’s fold in 1961 at the age of 10, when I visited Him with my parents and siblings. My father had already met Swami before our visit and Swami asked my father to return to Puttaparthi with his family. At the time of our visit, my father was undergoing financial hardships. I still remember vividly Swami telling my father, “Your lifeboat is ready to sink. I will not let that happen. I will guide you across the ocean of life. Your children are my children and I will take care of them”. Ever since that initial meeting, my family travelled from Mangalore to Puttaparthi several times a year to visit our dear Lord. Swami would grace us with an interview each visit. During these interviews, Swami would give us spiritual advice and direction regarding life decisions.
After I finished high school, the time came for me to attend college. One of my uncles who is a physician encouraged me to apply to medical school. To my disbelief, I was accepted into Kasturba Medical College in Manipal. When my parents learned of my acceptance, they opposed the idea of my becoming a physician. I knew the only way to pursue my dream of becoming a doctor was to put my faith in Swami. My parents were staunch devotees of Bhagavan and so I pleaded with them to ask Swami before making a final decision. Upon our next visit to Puttaparthi, Swami answered my prayers and told my parents that I should become a physician. Swami in his infinite grace also answered my parents’ prayers and was instrumental in arranging my marriage.
Witnessing the Power of Selfless Service in Medical Camps
After marriage, my husband and I came to the United States to complete our residency training. In the late 1970s, I became involved with the International Medical Camps during Swami’s Birthday celebrations in Prasanthi Nilayam. These medical camps provided free medical care to thousands of patients from all over India. The opportunity to participate in these camps had a profound influence on me. It was in these camps that I witnessed the power of selfless service conducted as per our Beloved Bhagavan’s teachings and guidance. These camps were later conducted twice a year during Guru Purnima and Swami’s Birthday celebrations and I considered it a privilege to attend these camps in Prasanthi Nilayam annually.
Despite my sincere desire to provide quality patient care, I initially struggled with the language barrier and would rely on my broken Telugu during many patient encounters at the medical camps in Prasanthi Nilayam. I remember trying to counsel a woman on the importance of engaging in diet and exercise to normalise her high blood pressure. It was only later that a colleague made me aware that her husband had recently passed away, resulting in significant grief and stress for the patient. Needless to say, it saddened me to know that I had not been able to provide her the counselling she so desperately needed and deserved. I prayed to Swami earnestly for His help. Not even a second passed when a nurse from Hyderabad hospital arrived who spoke fluent English and Telugu. She assisted me with translation for the remainder of the medical camp and subsequent camps. This experience and many others taught me to put my full faith in Swami and to remember that He would guide and provide for me every step of the way.
After we finished our residency and fellowship training, my husband and I moved to St. Petersburg, Florida to start a medical practice in our respective specialities. Though we initially engaged in service at soup kitchens with other centre members, our dear Lord encouraged us to incorporate our medical training into our service activities. I remember Swami telling me, “There are many people who can serve at soup kitchens, but there are only a few doctors who can ease the suffering of patients”. Swami’s advice during this interview prompted me to increase local service activities in the United States. With His words in my mind and heart, I became excited about the prospect of starting free medical camps in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Medical Camps in Florida
Swami’s instruction resulted in the first medical screening camp for the homeless and uninsured population of St. Petersburg, Florida in 2004. With Swami’s blessings and the help of the Salvation Army, the first camp took place at the St. Petersburg Salvation Army campus. From 2004 to 2008, we worked with several organisations in St. Petersburg, Florida to expand our reach to families in need. For the second camp, we worked with the Homeless Emergency Project (HEP), a non-profit organisation that provides support for homeless and low-income families. Our third medical screening camp was conducted at Harborview Center in Clearwater, Florida. The next year, we conducted our fourth and final screening camp at the Colosseum in St. Petersburg, Florida – our largest screening camp to date. We had the honour of serving over 1,200 patients with the assistance of 352 volunteers in this regional medical camp. These camps provided services that ranged from medical check-ups to smoking cessation and anger management classes. To this day, I will never forget a young man that attended an anger management session. He returned at the completion of the camp and requested the doctor toreview the anger management session with him again, which the physician graciously obliged. As he was leaving, I asked him why he wanted to attend the session twice. The young man said that he had felt very angry and resentful towards his mother and had even considered harming her. He shared that the class had made him feel calmer and had provided him with the tools he needed to lessen his anger. He was very thankful for the camp and stated that he would not inflict any pain on his mother, going forward.
During these early camps, we conducted exit interviews to survey the needs of our community. It became evident through these assessments that there were many unfulfilled needs in our community. Many visitors conveyed the urgent need for medical camps that offered treatment rather than medical screening. Indeed, several individuals stated that they were unable to afford treatment to decrease their suffering. It was then that I recalled Swami’s prescient words, that service should relieve the suffering of the individual being served. After much introspection, I met with the medical director of the St. Petersburg Free Clinic to discuss how we could increase treatment services for our patients. With the conditional approval of the medical director, we started a monthly Saturday free clinic, with an initial three-month trial period. By Swami’s grace, this clinic has continued from 2008 to the present day.
This partnership with the St. Petersburg Free Clinic has led to other opportunities to serve our community. A young woman in the local community had passed away from a dental infection that had affected her heart valves. Saddened by this fact, the medical director of the Free Clinic approached us with the prospect of conducting dental treatment camps in the St. Petersburg community. Our Beloved Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba provided His personal instructions and blessings to conduct these camps, the first of which was held in 2008. Through the tremendous efforts of our Sai volunteers and local dentists, we performed tooth extractions and cavity fillings for numerous patients. One such patient was a woman who had been suffering with dental pain for seven years but was unable to afford the dental insurance needed to have her tooth extracted. After receiving treatment at the camp, she expressed her gratitude and left for the local food bank so that she could give back to the community. Stories like this served as constant reminders that selfless service can inspire and motivate anyone!
In the year that followed, we conducted a dental hygiene camp and the feedback we received from our patients was overwhelmingly positive. We expanded the camp offerings to two dental hygiene and two dental treatment camps every year, thereafter. Since the inception of these speciality camps, we have been able to identify other areas of critical need in our community, including eye and foot care. With the initiation of podiatry camps, we had the opportunity to wash the feet of our patients prior to their podiatry evaluation. Each visitor then received new socks and shoes. In collaboration with the Lion’s Club, an international service organisation, we offered a range of eye care services, which included vision check, refraction, eye pressure and fundal examinations and free reading and prescription glasses. With Swami’s continued blessings and the tireless efforts of countless Sai volunteers, the Sathya Sai Group of Clearwater now offers six free medical camps a year in St. Petersburg, Florida, co-sponsored by the St. Petersburg Free Clinic and the Pinellas County Health Department.
We feel Swami’s love and guidance in all aspects of these camps and feel His presence in every patient we have the privilege to serve. As our dear Bhagavan says, “If you lift the hand to serve, to help, to console, to encourage another man, you are lifting it for God, for God is in every man”.
– The author has won many awards for participating in a number of medical camps in St. Petersburg, Florida.