Serving In Sathya Sai Global Health Mission: Perspective of A Neurosurgeon
Swami has said that our mother is the first spiritual teacher – Guru, as she introduces the child first to the idea of a supreme being in a simplistic way and then hands the child over to the father, the next Guru. In my case, it was my mother who also brought Swami into my life as well as the lives of my six siblings. This led to my first visit to Prasanthi Nilayam in 1981, with my wife. In later years, Swami blessed my mother with a room in the Ashram where she stayed. Periodically, we would visit both our biological mother and our spiritual mother –Swami – in Prasanthi Nilayam.
Swami Enters My Life
We left the shores of Sri Lanka in 1972 for my postgraduate training in medicine in UK. After five years in UK, we settled down in Australia, where my mother came to live with us for two years. It was then that she planted the seed of faith in Swami before she left to stay in Prasanthi Nilayam. We became involved in a small Sai Centre in the garage of a devotee’s house with a handful of followers in 1981. As the numbers grew, the various wings of the centre emerged, and rudimentary service activities started to take root. Today, Canberra, Australia has a very dynamic Sai family. For more than 30 years, my family and I have played an active role in the Sai Centre in Canberra. My two children attended the Bal Vikas programme, where I was involved as a teacher.
In my early years in Australia, I could not get a position in the local hospitals as a neurosurgeon, a field in which I had spent more than six years in training. I took up temporary jobs as a general practitioner and emergency doctor. Meanwhile, I prayed to Swami to be given the opportunity to make the best use of my professional skills developed over many years through training in neurosurgery. He fulfilled my wish in 1980 when I was appointed a neurosurgeon in a hospital in Canberra where I had worked previously in 1978 for a year.
I had an intense desire to offer my services to help the people of northern Sri Lanka where I was born and later worked for two years as a junior doctor, as a token of gratitude to my motherland. The civil war raging in the country, which was also the cause of our migration to Australia, made this very difficult. We participated in some of the medical camps in Prasanthi Nilayam and even took a medical team to northern Sri Lanka in 2005 for post Tsunami relief work in healthcare.
In 1991, the Australian Sai Medical Unit was formed, and I was appointed as joint medical coordinator and a few years later as the Zone 3 Medical Coordinator of the Sathya Sai International Organisation (SSIO). Australia has a comprehensive, universal medical service programme. Therefore, opportunities to do active medical service within the country are very limited.
Swami says, “Show me your availability; I will give you the ability”. Accordingly, the opportunity came to me to offer my skills to serve another island nation in 2001. This was the country of Fiji with a population of 800,000, but with no neurosurgical services available. The Royal Australasian College of Surgeons sent annually a pro bono neurosurgical team for a fortnight to provide such services. I was asked to lead this project, and by His grace, I was able to serve in that capacity until 2012.The team included an anaesthetist and several nurses, who rendered excellent service, although none of them were SSIO members.
Establishment of Neurosurgical Unit in Fiji
In between these annual visits to Fiji, patients with life threatening conditions died if they could not access the limited government assistance available to travel overseas for treatment. Children with brain conditions needing urgent surgery suffered permanent brain damage. In view of these prevailing conditions, we were then able to arrange for a second team to visit Fiji. Fijian Airlines gave us three free air tickets to travel for six years and some local philanthropists provided different forms of support. Companies assisted us generously with equipment and medical supplies.
However, in the interest of self-sufficiency, our goal soon turned to setting up Fiji’s own neurosurgical and neurological services. Everything happens by His Will in time, as ordained. We finally found a young trainee who was prepared to pursue this path of medicine. The then Minister for Health in Fiji was a visionary and paved the way for this professional to receive training at the neurosurgical unit in Canberra where I was the director of the neurosurgical unit and supervisor of training. My colleagues and the hospital also supported this effort strongly. The trainee received hands-on experience with us for two years, and a scholarship was arranged for him to gain experience at a children’s hospital in Sydney for six months. Upon returning, he started the first neurosurgical unit of Fiji in 2013.
During this period, we arranged for a Fijian physician to train in neurology and a junior doctor to train in radiology in Canberra. We have continued to assist the unit by providing equipment and by regular meetings with the Minister for Health in Fiji to ensure their continued support. The particular neurosurgeon currently performs over 300 operations a year and is poised to train a second surgeon in this speciality.
Rural Sai Medical Camps in Fiji
During an interview in Kodaikanal, my wife asked Swami to allow me to work in His hospital. Swami responded, “any time”, thus giving me an opportunity to work at the neurosurgical unit in Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Medical Sciences (SSIHMS), Whitefield. This gave me an insight into the tremendous work being performed under the leadership of Dr. Hegde, an excellent and renowned neurosurgeon, as well as the excellent facilities at the SSSIHMS provided by Swami, in His infinite compassion.
Though these opportunities were gratifying personally, I felt that we needed to widen our horizon. Dr. Dinesh Lal, a Gastroenterologist in New Zealand, organised a Sai medical team to visit rural Fiji in 2016 to provide much-needed basic medical care. Dr. Gunu Naker, a senior general practitioner in Sydney and a long-standing Sai devotee and member of the medical unit, and myself both considered joining the medical team from New Zealand. He had previously organised two medical camps in an aboriginal community and also undertaken a few other projects. At that time, we did not have many doctors in the Sai family serving the needy, mainly due to lack of local opportunity for service.
Dr. Gunu Naker was appointed team leader of the healthcare team and organised our first entry into rural Fiji in 2007. From 2008, we organised an independent visit by the Australian team of medical volunteers and professionals. An opportunity also came to be associated with a local medical school where we could organise a teaching session over an entire day. To acquire practical knowledge, around 40 medical students would travel with us for the next five days and observe how Sai’s teachings were put into practice. In the meantime, the New Zealand Medical Team continued to visit rural Fiji. At present, they have 90 volunteers, and the local Sai family and Sai doctors also provide much needed assistance.
Swami has said, “Service should be provided where it is most needed”. He also says, “Service is the highest spiritual discipline. Prayer and meditation or knowledge of scriptures and Vedanta (holy scriptures of India), cannot help you reach the goal as quickly as service can. Service has a double effect; it extinguishes the ego and gives bliss”. Thus, we felt that we needed to move out of our comfort zone. We were aware of the poor health facilities in Vanua Levu, the second largest island of Fiji and the need for medical services. However, transport of volunteers and medical equipment and local accommodation posed a challenge. With Swami’s blessings, this project commenced in 2014 and the association with the medical school continues till today. The healthcare team comprises about 60 volunteers, including family practitioners, specialist physicians, gynaecologists, ophthalmologists, optometrists, psychiatrists, psychologists, dentists, dental prosthetists, nurses, physiotherapists, IT support and general volunteers. All volunteers pay their own expenses, with support from the Sai community for pharmaceuticals and equipment. In 2016, a general surgeon and a urological surgeon joined the team and were able to provide much-needed services at the main local hospital. Several medical companies have provided equipment and consumables generously for this effort.
All this work involves logistics, planning and liaison with the Fijian Medical Board, the Ministry of Health and the Customs Departments in Fiji. The dedication and efficiency of the organising team, consisting of the team leader Dr. Gunu Naker, the logistics manager, Lawrence Kissun, and the IT and data manager Anurag Prasad, and the assistance of Dr. Saras Nandan, the SSIO medical director of Fiji are worthy of recognition for their selfless services.
While the government-run rural health clinics have improved substantially over the years, lack of health awareness, poor compliance by patients and socio-political issues have plagued the people of Fiji, impacting their health. Despite being a developing country, Fiji surpasses some of the developed nations in the incidence of non-communicable diseases. It has one of the highest incidences of limb amputation for diabetes in the world. The medical educators of our team are actively involved in patient education at the camps. To date, we have organised three conferences for the local health workers and medical students on Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs), in response to this issue.
While the Fijian population has benefited from healthcare services rendered by the SSIO teams from Australia and New Zealand, we must remind ourselves that it is not just a professional exercise but something with far more significance. Seva is the highest Sadhana as emphasised by Swami. The volunteers, irrespective of their skills, see this as a spiritual exercise, giving them an exalted experience, particularly when receiving the words of gratitude from the patients. The loving and caring attitude shown by the volunteers, in itself, has immense therapeutic effect on the patients. It is a universal experience that love is the “currency of exchange”. It is a heart-to-heart experience.
Medical students see love in action and a genuine example of compassion and altruism and take home the message of love in action, besides receiving medical knowledge and training. Many healthcare volunteers who participated in the selfless service have now qualified professionally. They related to me how they internalised the values leant in the camps and put them into practice.
It has been a blessing and privilege to have been involved in Sai work and associated with the Sai volunteers over the years, for which I remain ever grateful to my parents and Swami. The encouragement and assistance provided by my wife for these activities is gratefully acknowledged.
– The author is a retired neurosurgeon from Australia and is a senior member of the Sathya Sai International Organisation.