Monday, March 28, 2011

Serving God in our Patients

In 2009 I had the privilege of spending two days at the Swami Vivekananda Hospital in Saragur, India. (See here for a post about my visit.) Since that visit I've followed a blog by Dr. R. Balasubramianiam ("Balu"), founder of the Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement, sponsor of the hospital.

In a recent post, Balu wrote about Dr Swaminath ("Swami"), a psychiatrist in Bangalore who has visited the Saragur hospital every month for fifteen years. Swami sees 35-40 patients at each visit. Along with colleagues, Swami founded Chittadhama, a refuge for homeless mentally ill. Balu visited Chittadhama, and wrote about it as follows:
Swami confided in me that he was concerned that Chittadhama be able to provide every person who came in looking for solace and treatment, with food to eat to their heart’s content. He was narrating how these people are misunderstood and consequently ill-treated by their families and society. Many of them go without baths for months and eat only when some kind-hearted soul gives them food...This is a place where one can give so much to people - people who will truly make us feel privileged and happy that we are given an opportunity to serve the God in them.
Although I'm a secular person in terms of theological beliefs, I regard health care as a calling, and Balu's comment about "serving the God" in one's patients resonated. I Googled Dr. Swaminath and found links to excellent articles in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry on doctor-patient communication, psychoeducation, "cinemadness," truth telling, and counterfeit drugs. I was struck by the overlap of our interests in ethics, clinical practice, and health policy.

Over the years I've thought a lot about where the health care "calling" comes from for those who do not base their calling on an explicit theology. I believe that being part of a community with a shared ethical commitment is part of the ground for a "non-theological" calling. To my understanding, Balu's concept of "serving God in our patients" is essentially the same as my belief that the right orientation towards our patients is the form of "love" that Martin Buber conceptualized as "I-Thou."

Internet and search engines create potential for a global moral community. I feel moral solidarity with Dr. Swaminath, a fellow psychiatrist who I will probably never meet.

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