I'm in Mysore, in the South Indian state of Karnataka, for eight days, at the Vivekananda Institute of Indian Studies. The Institute is part of a remarkable twenty five year old non-governmental organization - Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement (SVYM).
I visited for two days at the hospital the NGO runs in Saragur, a rural community forty miles southwest of Mysore. The visit provided a rich perspective on the ethics of health care and health organizations. I've organized my initial thoughts around two questions, both involving the concept of health care as a calling:
1. If health care is a calling, where does the call come from? Dr. R. Balasubramianiam ("Balu"), currently president of the NGO, led a group of medical students at Mysore Medical College who founded SVYM in 1984. Balu described how at 17 he was "ragged" so harshly by the senior students at the engineering college he had enrolled in that he decided not to go back. Since simply staying at home wasn't an option, to cover up the fact that he wasn't at school he started to spend the hours he would have been at the engineering college at an ashram, where he encountered the teachings of Swami Vivekananda (1863 - 1902) and was inspired by Vivekananda's vision of service to the rural poor and of making India an educated, healthy, harmonious society. Medicine, in the form of service to the rural poor, became his calling.
Balu's narration of his traumatic experience at the engineering college teaches one lesson about the origins of medical calling. It typically has strong personal roots. Virtually all of the physicians, nurses and other health care professionals who (a) I admire and (b) I know well enough to ask about their path to health care (c) cite meaningful personal origins of their calling. These vary tremendously, but have in common being intensely important to the individual.
Pictures of Swami Vivekananda and placards with his most quotable sayings are all around the hospital. When an associate of the NGO told me that he himself was an atheist I asked him "if Swami Vivekananda were here and heard you say that - what would he say?" The response was - "the Swami was an atheist himself - he thought that any god who allowed so much suffering didn't deserve to be worshipped. He taught that the religious spirit was shown in service, not in ritual practices."
Dr. Sridevi Seetharam, a physician deeply involved with medical ethics, explained that in Sanskrit terms, the gentleman I quoted in the previous paragraph was talking about the devotional path known as Karma Yoga - "selfless service to others in one's chosen profession or area of work." Vivekananda was Hindu by birth, but taught that all religions are in some sense "true." In addition to the personal origins of each person's calling to health care, the hospital's inspiration, Swami Vivekananda, and the ancient tradition of devotion through a Karma Yoga, which can be entirely non-sectarian and non-theistic, provides an external pillar for the calling.
In the U.S. people of faith can, if they choose, base their calling on their religious beliefs. But the kind of framework the doctrine of Karma Yoga provides, is not part of our secular ethos. The professionals I most admire act as if they were carrying out a devotional process, but if asked to explain the foundation that underlies their care giving, they're often at a loss to articulate it, or say something like "this may sound like a cliche but..."
2. How does calling manifest itself at the organizational level? My time at the Vivekananda Hospital was limited, but:
* The hospital and its outpatient clinic serve a rural population that includes tribal people who are only recently out of the forest. There is a huge social gap between many of the patients and the well educated professional staff. But the professionals evinced an interest in and warmth towards the people they serve that seemed more like love than technical "cultural competence." The physicians we spoke with evinced deep empathy with the patients. One manifestation of this empathy was creation of a strong role for "patient care managers" who come from the rural population and guide patients through their interaction with the care program in a side by side manner. Empathy is also manifested by providing free lodging for family members who cannot go back to their villages at night because there are no buses after 5:00 PM.
* Physicians were remarkably knowledgeable about traditional Ayurvedic treatment methods and Ayurvedic clinicians were part of the staff. Patients whose traditions and beliefs included Ayurveda had access to this approach in a way that was integrated with the allopathic services they received.
* A holistic view of health as involving more than medical relief of pathological states led the hospital staff to initiate a range of other activities including health and hygiene education in the villages, support for school improvement, and promotion of a clean water supply.
* Finally, and most remarkable from an American perspective, the hospital holds a twice a week non-sectarian prayer meeting attended by all of the staff and all of the patients. I was not present for a prayer meeting, and I do not see it as a format that would fit into a secular U.S. institution, but finding acceptable ways of recognizing the calling that all are participating in is a desirable path to follow.