Milpitas, Calif. – Public health care physician Vivek Murthy, nominated last year by President Barack Obama to serve as the nation’s next surgeon general, told a full house attending the Indians for Collective Action annual dinner here Oct. 12 that his passion for serving people who lacked access to health care began with his mother and father, who ran a free medical clinic in Miami, Fla.
“One night, my mom woke us up in the middle of the night,” said Murthy, 38, adding that the family rushed to a trailer park where a patient of his father had just died.
“We went to make sure his wife was not grieving alone,” said Murthy, who – should the Senate confirm him – would be the nation’s first Indian American to hold the post.
“Medicine is more than algorithms and pharmaceuticals,” said Murthy, who was born in England, but grew up in Miami. “It is about a human relationship between a doctor and his patient.”
ICA honored Murthy and Reema Nanavaty, who since 1989 has led the Self Employment Women’s Association, a trade union based in Ahmedabad, which aims to organize the unorganized sector of low-income, self-employed female workers. The pioneering organization currently represents more than 15 million women across India.
Nanavaty’s physician forbade her from making the grueling trip to the U.S., due to spinal issues. Her young pre-teen son, Nageshwar Bhatt, charmed the audience as he accepted the ICA award on his mother’s behalf. “I hope the relationship between SEWA and ICA continues for many years,” he said eloquently, elegantly dressed for the occasion in a neat suit and tie.
ICA past president Bhupen Mehta introduced SEWA president Kapilaben Vankar, who had flown in from Ahmedabad just two hours before the evening program. Mehta said Vankar, a former fieldworker, used to receive about 10 cents a day for grueling work in the fields.
“There were many days where she had no food,” said Mehta, emotionally. “She now fights for the rights of farm-workers everywhere.”
“SEWA gave me a platform to develop leadership for other women,” said Vankar through a translator, noting that when she joined SEWA, she developed a voice within her own household.
Murthy has been involved in innovative solutions to public health care crises since his undergraduate days at Harvard. On a trip home to Karnataka one summer, he and his sister Rashmi, who is also a physician, found an acute lack of HIV/AIDS information amongst young residents of rural hamlets. The siblings founded VISION Worldwide, aimed at promoting education and prevention of HIV/AIDS with young people.
“On the face of it, we were highly naïve,” said the affable physician to the ICA audience gathered in the ballroom of the India Community Center. “We ran into a lot of resistance at the start, but we pushed forward,” said Murthy, estimating that the program has served an estimated 45,000 students.
Abhay Bhushan, past president of ICA, told India-West that the siblings had managed to address a gap in health care education at a very critical time. “In the 1990s, people in India were in denial about AIDS, saying ‘we don’t have sex outside marriage.’ They accused Vivek of spreading immorality.”
While attending medical school at Yale, Murthy chanced upon a conversation his father was having with an Indian visitor on the topic of rural health care. The conversation germinated a new organization sprouted by Murthy – Swasthya Community Health Partnership, a grassroots initiative that trains young women to serve as health care workers in their villages.
About a year after Swasthya got off the ground, Murthy shadowed one of the project’s workers, 17-year-old Shamila. The young pair wandered through the village, visiting modest huts to talk about post-natal care for new babies, domestic violence, contraception and other health concerns.
“I saw the respect the community had for Shamila,” said Murthy glowingly. “In India and in the U.S., young people can be an important force to mobilize in health care challenges.”
In 2008, during President Barack Obama’s first election campaign, Murthy, who now practices internal medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Mass., co-founded Doctors for Obama, which was later re-named Doctors for America. The organization aims to promote health care and preventive care for all U.S. residents through a network of more than 15,000 physicians.
Alice Chen, executive director of Doctors for America, told India-West on the sidelines of the ICA dinner that when she joined the organization, “All I knew was that I wanted to fix health care. I did not know what it would look like,” she said with a laugh.
The Affordable Care Act was designed to extend health care coverage to all legal residents of the U.S., noted Chen, adding, however, that the high cost of health care has still not been addressed.
An overall approach aimed at creating a healthy nation would incorporate housing, transportation, public schools, playgrounds, and the availability of fresh food in all communities, stated Chen. She added that Murthy would be an extraordinary leader in creating this new, preventive approach to health care.
Murthy himself was unavailable for an interview, as his nomination process is still underway. In a brief comment, however, Murthy told India-West: “ICA has been such a touch-stone organization in the development of our community. It’s been a real honor to be here.”