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when god injects hope in a billion hearts...

Spiritual activism – solution to modern healthcare woes

By Mrs. Karuna Sarup-Munshi

Mrs. Karuna Sarup-Munshi, currently works as the Office Administrator at the Sathya Sai School of Canada. She is a Gold medalist in M.A., Philosophy from the Anantapur campus of Sri Sathya Sai University. An experienced journalist, she has also worked in the social justice movement.


As citizens of a first-world nation, all Canadians enjoy access to a universal healthcare system. While our wealthy friends south of the border depend on private insurance to cover their hospital, diagnostic and drug expenses, the Canadian constitution assures each of us access to doctors and treatment by the virtue of our citizenship or permanent residence. Our tax dollars are directed to ensure equitable and accessible medical care, a privilege often taken for granted by many.

Lopsided Development

Despite the stronger muscle of the US economy, American law makers have repeatedly debated the issue of universal healthcare but the political will and vision to legislate it through the road blocks set up by private healthcare lobbyists and vested interests remains weak and dismal. Opponents of the idea point to the enormous economic burden it will place on the federal and state budgets and the possibility that its universal access will dilute the quality and efficiency of the medical facilities that are available for payment under the current system. When it is a question of one’s health, no one minds paying, they argue, for speedy and effective treatment.

Hi-tech Health care in the west - excellent diagnostics
..and enviable high-quality surgical operations

While Americans pride themselves in their world-class surgeons who offer state-of-the-art diagnostic services, even if for payment by private insurance companies, Canadians boast of the universal access to their healthcare system by all its citizens, be it a millionaire or a homeless person.


Recently, I found myself face-to-face with a system that combined the best of both the American and Canadian systems while far surpassing their combined worth due to an element entirely missing in either. It also was short on a feature common to both the North American systems, namely the frequent swiping of cards, be it for billing the government or private insurers or for access to facilities by only bona fide personnel.

Interestingly, I received the ultimate lesson in spiritual activism and the practice of humane and compassionate medicine, where the patient is treated as an ‘embodiment of God’ in the heart of rural South India and an urban suburb nearby.

Sai Healthcare System – A Model for Mankind

Many who have closely studied the Sathya Sai Model of holistic healthcare see it as God’s personal response to the cry for help from India ’s billion helpless souls, barring the select wealthy Indians who can afford exorbitant facilities in the private sector in urban India or abroad.

 
   
The two 'oases of heavenly healing' amidst drought and despair

In the daily workings of the Sathya Sai healthcare system, spiritual activism finds its voice as the ultimate equalizer of opportunity to serve and be served, bringing to full circle the cyclical rotation of the “isms” of political and social systems. The playing field is level for all, be it the healthcare providers, hospital administrators, volunteer chaperones or patients who represent India ’s cultural, religious and social diversity.

People from far-off places come here seeking the best possible medical attention that is available to everyone regardless of their age, race, religion, cultural or economic background. This should hardly surprise a Canadian yet my recent tryst with the Sathya Sai healthcare system has left me in awe.

The Puttaparthi Experience Begins…

On June 26, 2007 my connecting flight from Heathrow to Bangalore arrived 4 hours behind schedule, landing my taxi in the eye of the chaos that is Bangalore traffic during rush hour, as well as at most other times.

 

I had chosen this flight on purpose as it was supposed to arrive at 4:30 am giving me a reasonable window of opportunity to beat the traffic and drive off speedily to Puttaparthi, on my four hour car ride from Bangalore airport. My parents had arrived in Prasanthi Nilayam, Puttaparthi ten days earlier and my father had taken quite ill shortly thereafter.

The following day, Dr. Safaya, the Director of the Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Medical Sciences gave me a patient hearing as I told him of my concerns regarding my Dad’s condition and also my Mother’s health as I noticed how ill she looked, being the sole caretaker of my father in his sickness. Both of them had undergone surgeries at this hospital several years ago, but I was not present then. My mother had her polycystic kidney problem resolved by surgery while Dad had had a prostate operation some years ago.

This time around, within 40 hours of my landing in Puttaparthi, my parents and I were led into the cardiac ward by the friendly young gentleman from the Director’s office.

Mr and Mrs Sarup, the parents of the author
 

Seshu Prasad handed us over to the lady who filled out the pre-screening information for us as we waited in a clean and quiet ward, outside the doctor’s office.

You Step in and Healing Begins…

Living in Canada, I have seen hospitals with waiting areas of compatible cleanliness and order, but the environment here was quite unique. Polite and pleasant seva dal volunteers were guiding the patients in rows. Despite the large number of people waiting, the decibel level was unusually low. Patients and their families seemed calm, quiet and relaxed. A sense of peace and serenity seemed to seep into one’s soul. By this time, even my parents seemed reassured that they were in safe hands and everything was going to turn out fine.

This sense of hope and optimism seemed to pervade through all parts of the hospital. Walking through the corridors I realized how peaceful the environment in the hospital was despite the large number of patients and personnel inside the building. Also conspicuous by their absence were the jam-packed parking lots one would expect at a facility of such magnitude.

Looking around I noticed most of the clientele was from rural backgrounds or out-of-towners and had therefore accessed the hospital by public transport, explaining the absence of parking nightmares typical of such super-specialized hospitals elsewhere. In Toronto, one would have to struggle to find a parking spot in a hospital vicinity and the typical charge for every 30 minutes of parking being upwards of $6!

Around us were men, women and children from all parts of India, most of them quite oblivious of who Sri Sathya Sai Baba is, except the provider of their free healthcare.

 
 
The crowd in the hospital is an eclectic mix
of all classes, regions and religion

An unusually peaceful environment pervaded the space as people sat patiently for their turn. In some places, television monitors where showing glimpses of the Sports Day Meet of the Sri Sathya Sai University, located a few kilometers away. Parents with children, Muslim women in burkhas, men smelling of beedis, with paan-stained teeth sat calmly, waiting for their audience with the cardiologists. The general mood in the hospital evoked a sense of civility among the patients including those from rural background with little or no formal education. Everyone seemed to be on their best behaviour.

Despite the packed halls, the hospital did not have the usual smell of disinfectant I have come to associate with such places since my childhood. The floors were polished clean and so was the furniture – neat, tidy and comfortable. The seating was arranged in rows, keeping the crowd in order. To my surprise, I learned, all custodial, janitorial, crowd management and chaperoning duties at the facility are performed by the dedicated seva dal volunteers on a rotational basis year-round from every state of India.

Spontaneous Empathy All Round

Soon, we were called by a doctor who looked young enough to be a student of the local university, dressed as he was in the students’ unofficial uniform of white untucked shirt and trouser. He was most patient and proved to be an excellent listener. He read through the list of my parents’ symptoms that I had prepared and asked them detailed questions. He was in no rush and examined them thoroughly. He came across as a thorough professional but what moved me most was his mannerism. He seemed very accessible to both my parents, most patient as he listened to and examined them and even more respectful as he explained what he wanted them to do and why.

 
Dr. Sunil Agarwal at work...
 
Meticulous in his examination and concerned in his care

Like most medical professionals in the facility, he was multi-lingual, facilitating effective doctor-patient communication. He spoke to my Dad in English and to Mom in Hindi and was extremely polite and respectful to both. I also heard him speak to other patients in Telegu, the local language. I had not met a doctor with such fine human qualities, especially humility, before. As we left his office to go for the diagnostic testing he had recommended, I could not help but ask him his name. Just interacting with Dr. Sunil Agarwal during the assessment proved therapeutic for both my parents and quite reassuring for me. We could use such calm and respectful doctors to soothe a nerve or two in our Canadian health-care system, I thought to myself. Aren’t our doctors generally rushed between patients?

Professional technicians put my parents through a battery of diagnostic tests for their respective cardio assessments. The seva dal volunteers from the state of Gujarat were on duty at that time and the lady volunteer overseeing the flow of patients was most polite and understanding when my absent-minded Dad left the facility leaving his shirt behind. She gave me enough time to bring him back to get dressed properly.

When we returned in the afternoon to collect the results and discuss the next course of action with the doctor, we had some time on our hands. We visited the central foyer of the hospital, to gawk in silence at its awe-inspiring architecture and décor. Spotlessly clean, quiet and breezy, the space is the spiritual heart of the hospital that heals patients with the love that blows in its soothing breeze and the consideration that flows from its staff. The seva dal volunteer on duty by the reception desk advised us where to place our footwear for safe keeping, as he watched it for us. It was yet another calming experience to just stand in the hallowed cathedral, staring silently at its high-ceiling and dome and bowing to the statue of Lord Ganapathi, the personification of the inner will within each of us to overcome all obstacles.

At the end of the day, when I returned home with the cardiac assessment for both my parents, I felt deeply gratified that they had received the best possible medical attention where the doctors were driven by their overall welfare, not billing issues which often prompt uncalled for surgeries and procedures.

And funny enough, I had not swiped any credit cards or health insurance cards to foot the bill for the consultation, diagnostic procedures or any other medical attention that had come our way and was on par if not better than anything I have experienced in the Canadian healthcare system of which most of us in Canada are quite proud. And yes, I have had my share of hospital visits and stays and can compare the experience quite objectively.

 
 
The awe-inspiring dome at Puttaparthi hospital
     
A Quick Glance of the Service Rendered in Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Medical Sciences, Prasanthi Gram, from inception in November 22, 1991 till March 31, 2007

 

Department of Cardiology

Figures

1

Number of Patients who visited Cardiac OPD

716,117

2
Number of Cardiac Surgeries done
16,450

3

Number of Cardiology Catheterisation done

17,924

 

Department of Urology

 

4
Number of patients who visited Urology OPD
325,932

5

Number of Urology Surgeries done

29,675

 

Department of Ophthalmology

 

6

Number of patients who visited Ophthalmology OPD

323,170

7
Number of Ophthalmology Surgeries done
31,157

A few days into the cardio assessment and treatment, we were ready for the trip to the Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Medical Sciences in Whitefield, on the outskirts of Bangalore city for a Neurological check-up. Waiting in the reception area, I struck a conversation with a Muslim lady, who had, just like my parents and I, traveled a long distance to be there. She hailed from rural Orissa in Eastern India and she spoke to me in a smattering of Hindi and Oriya. She was waiting there as her son was completing some paper work in the office. She explained how she had a heart problem and had gone from one district of Orissa to another, seeking medical treatment for her problem. Finally, a kind doctor in one of the bigger towns had told her that she needed an expensive surgical procedure which she could avail free of cost at this hospital.

 
 
 
The heart of the Super Speciality Hospital, Whitefield -
the source of the sublime ambience that pervades its every wall and window
 

Some are Blissfully Unaware of the Source

During the course of our conversation, I told her about my parents and their health concerns and I assured her that neither she nor my parents could receive better medical attention anywhere in the whole wide world and it wasn’t going to cost anyone a single penny. She seemed pleased and reassured to hear it. I then casually asked her if she knew who was behind this huge blessing of free world-class healthcare and she confessed she had no idea. I pointed to the large picture of Bhagavan Baba behind the reception desk and suggested that she visit Puttaparthi to behold this loving being after her successful surgery and before the long trip back to her native Orissa.

Some time later, when I was preparing to take my parents for their pictures for the registration procedure, I brushed shoulders with some Catholic nuns in their black and white habits, who were also in line for medical attention. Soon a stranger approached me and asked for directions to see Him, pointing to Baba’s big picture behind the desk. He explained that his mother, the lady from Orissa had told him about our tête-à-tête earlier on and was keen to see Sai Baba. I wrote some details on a piece of paper and advised him to seek more information from the hospital staff once his mother had successfully undergone the heart surgery. He seemed determined to seek the source of all the consideration and care his mother was receiving.

We had arrived on a Tuesday morning and were told to return on Thursday to see the Senior Consultant and Head of Department of Neurology, Dr. Suresha Kodapala. Initially I was concerned about ensuring my parents’ well-being at a local hotel till the appointed date. As their anticipation mounted, so did the consequent sense of relief that followed our meeting with the Neurologist Dr. Kodapala.

It’s the Personal Touch, More Than Professional Finesse

Thorough, meticulous, patient, multi-lingual, respectful and most humble, the doctor by the sheer power of his personality proved to be the soothing balm my parents needed to feel reassured and hopeful. He examined my father’s records from his doctor in Delhi and followed through on all previous diagnostic assessments. He also conducted a number of simple tests on each of them for their respective problems. Two medical students from France joined us during the consultation as observers. I sure hope that along with Dr. Kodapala’s professional insights, the two young ladies will emulate his finesse in patient interaction. That is the priceless lesson that will make their internship here worth every bit of the effort. I, for one, would never have expected such sobriety, love and care from a doctor who had just finished his rounds in the neuro ward and had a hall packed with patients awaiting his attention for the rest of his very long day. There was no dearth of either patients or patience in this doctor’s practice.

Here too, we went through halls packed with patients waiting calmly for their diagnostic and blood tests. The silence was almost deafening as there was an unexplained paradox between the large numbers seated in various areas and the silence that pervaded around them. Of course, you could almost hear a gentle “shhh…” from the picture of Bhagavan Baba pointing a finger to His lips that is posted around the hospital. It is a constant reminder to practice silence for He reminds us that it is only in the depths of silence that the voice of God can be heard. Who could deny the calming impact of the outer silence on the patients’ inner anxiety?

It's spontaneous smiles for everyone who steps inside these 'Temples of Healing'' ...

As I juggled between my parents through separate areas, for their individual procedures, we met and spoke to families from as far as Gwalior, Delhi and Mathura in central and north India and a majority from the four south Indian states of Kerela, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, the state in which this facility is located.

 

Everyone was there for a different reason but the common thread that ran through all the accounts we were privy to was this sense of satisfaction that they had finally reached the ultimate ‘temple of healing’ where anything that could possibly be done for their problem would be made available to them—the very best the medical world had to offer. And nobody was worried about the suitcase full of money they would need to pay for it. What a reassurance! Half the cure lay in that freedom from worry about the expense and the rest in knowing they were in such good hands.

Looking at the many patients waiting for MRI’s, CT Scans, EEG, ECG, ECHO and blood works, I could not help but wonder if any of them even realized that for such diagnostic procedures, operations, consultations … they or their insurance company would be paying thousands of dollars to a healthcare system that is driven by profit elsewhere in the world. Most patients and their families appeared pleased to have found this oasis of medical care where they can leave worries about payments outside the gate of the hallowed premises.

It's the best both ways - machines are state-of-the-art and the staff are exemplary in their dedication
 

During our follow-up appointment with Dr. Kodapala, I found myself groping for words to express my gratitude to him for the sensitivity he had shown to my father in particular, while assessing his condition and in discussing it with me alone, while my parents had stepped outside. Despite the bleak prognosis, he had assured us that Bhagavan is known to reverse such cases and we should continue the medication and write to Him for divine intervention. His concerned and reassuring tone and sensitivity moved me immensely and I felt this lump in my throat preventing me from articulating my appreciation to him for being a good human being apart from being a great neurologist.

Everyone from the young lady, Dr. Sumona Paul, who examined my parents during pre-screening to the many young men and women, most of them former students of the Sri Sathya Sai University, practice and personify the qualities of selflessness and universal love that have become synonymous with Bhagavan Baba.

A Quick Glance of the Service Rendered in Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Medical Sciences, Whitefield, from inception in January 2001 till March 31, 2007

 

Department of Cardiology

Figures

1

Number of Patients who visited Cardiac OPD

277,334

2
Number of Cardiac Surgeries done
7,437

3

Number of Cardiology Catheterisation done

16,347

 

Department of Neurology and Neuro Surgery

 

4
Number of patients who visited Neurology and Neuro Surgery OPD
147,693

5

Number of Neuro Surgeries done

6,928

Patient Devo Bhava’ – The ‘Patient is God’

The system is rare not only because it engages medical professionals of only world-class professional qualifications, and has the state-of-the-art diagnostic facilities that bring relief to the ailing patients in the heart of rural or suburban India at $0 cost to those who receive it, but more so because of the love, respect and dignity that each patient is treated with.

Next time I hear a divine discourse of Bhagavan Baba begin with the words “Divyatmaswarupalaras” (meaning, embodiments of divine atma) I can stand tall and say yes, my parents and hundreds of thousands of others have been treated as just that, the embodiments of the divine at His hospitals.

As I told Bhagavan Baba in my note of gratitude, His doctors and hospital staff emulate His nobility. By the sheer power of its purity, the holistic healthcare system started by Him can bring around a spiritual revival around the globe by eradicating disease and suffering – physical, mental, emotional and spiritual among all peoples, especially the poorest of the poor. His is the only healthcare system that infuses such confidence and hope among India’s hapless and helpless poor. It truly brings those on the very fringe of the decision makers’ peripheral vision into the spotlight, addressing their concerns, fears and problems with love, respect and dignity. This outreach and accessibility alone is worth the entire mammoth effort.

Secondly, it is the healthcare system that truly practices, day in and day out, the holistic concept of treating the whole person, not just an ailment. This came through loud and clear in the manner in which my parents were dealt with by every lab technician, receptionist, and volunteer and of course, the doctors.

 
 
Everybody rediscovers joy and happiness

Freedom from the anxiety of having to mortgage one’s property, life and family to foot the bill for such sophisticated tertiary care is half the cure. What would have amounted to a six figure payment stub in dollars for compatible medical attention in Canada cost my parents Rs.0. Hard to believe but we made no payments, and paid for absolutely nothing except for the beverages, snacks and meals which were also highly subsidized. I think an entire day’s meals and snacks at the hospital bakery and canteen cost all 3 of us less than $1 in total. The generosity of the system is overwhelming. If makes you search your soul deeper for more goodness within. This no-cost to patient approach definitely helps fast track patient recovery at a mental and emotional level.

Heavenly Healthcare on Earth and It’s Replicable

To sustain such an enormous project, apart from effective hospital management, the key to its success lies in its altruistic vision driven by spiritual activism. An incredible sense of sacrifice and social responsibility by those who have much to share is canalized to bring healthcare to those who lack it and this indeed is spiritual socialism at its best.

The size of the world’s economy, the budgets of the UNO, the WHO and NGO’s suggests that there is enough wealth in the world to facilitate such models in every city and town around the globe. What is lacking is the will and motivation to undertake such projects and mobilize dedicated and professional men and women to execute it. In case of the Sathya Sai healthcare model, it is Bhagavan Baba who is the sole motivator, role model and inspirer of millions of devotees who have willingly made personal sacrifices to be a part of His mission to uplift mankind through loving service. Through His personal example, Baba has taught His staff to put their heart and souls into their work and consider it as their ultimate worship.

 

The West may have its hospitals with advanced technologies and qualified doctors, but it still has much to learn from the Sathya Sai healthcare model. The greatest lesson I received through my experience is the system’s spiritual wisdom to deliver the relief in the awareness that each time you lead in a patient into the consultation room, you are interfacing with God and more importantly, money or profit has no place in such a sacred relationship.

If there is a model worthy of replication all around the globe, be in the American heartland where millions of poor Americans and illegal immigrants lack access to tertiary healthcare, or in the poverty-stricken and disease-ridden Africa, or war-torn Iraq or Afghanistan, it is this.

Upon our return, my parents and I are more grateful than ever before to Bhagavan Baba and see Him as the one force behind this ultimate altruism that has made such unparalleled healthcare accessible to all – from India’s poorest to its elite and everyone in between, absolutely free of cost.

The Sai hospitals - an unimaginable manifestation
of His unparalleled love
 

There are no barriers of any kind – economic, social, racial, religious… it is pure pluralism at its best. Here there is no two tier system in place. All is One, and everything is universal, including access to the system. What the great masters of the past propagated as Advaita-Vedanta (non-dualism), Baba has translated into action through His healthcare model, a reality that is overwhelming to grasp, leaving those it touches, gasping in awe and gratitude.


Dear Reader, did this article inspire you in any way? Would you like to share your feelings with us? If so please contact us at [email protected] mentioning your name and country.  Thank you for your time.


 

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Vol 5 Issue 08 - AUGUST 2007
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