After completing your schooling, where did you go and why?
My life was a hard life. Who I was wasn’t the norm and feeling different from others I never felt like I fit in. Often times, I would look up at the sky and wonder where my place was in the vastness of it all. Why was I here? What did I come to do? When times became very hard, I quit school and went into the world to find my answers. During my time abroad, I was moved by children parading through dumpsters in search of food. I watched them awkwardly trying to figure out why they were doing that. And why didn’t I have to do that? Those questions turned to a life quest to find a way to make it right. That is when I heard a distant voice deep inside saying, “Be a doctor and work for the poor in developing countries.” Up until that time, I could never eat tomatoes because they reminded me of blood. I was terrified of needles and anything remotely resembling anything medical, but the command was too real to ignore. So, I became a doctor and true to that inner voice I took my first assignment with Doctors without Borders in Rwanda around the time of the genocide, then to Haiti after their coup, to Angola during their civil war, to India for the Gujarat earthquake and to Indonesia after the Tsunami.
“Why, you ask? Why do I choose to help the poor? I would answer this question with the same question. Why… why do people choose not to? I suppose we all have our needs, to live our truth, to fulfill our destinies, to strive for excellence and make our lives meaningful. I would be lying to say that I sacrifice my life for others. I do what I do because I need to love. As I need to eat, sleep, and breathe, I need to love. Why? I suppose because I identify with other people who feel different and marginalized and look up at the sky wondering where they belong. Yes, my life was a hard, but today, I know that every hit and horror, every stick and stone, made me strong and sensitive and able to care and give love, too. Today, I want to give what I was given to those on the side of the road wishing someone would stop and hug them. A little listen, a little touch and a little love will make their worlds go around. I want to turn their worlds around.
You are both a medical doctor and an alternative practitioner—Why?
Health is our birthright. The body, heart, mind and soul aspire to keep us whole and complete, happy and joyous, loving and giving, receiving and appreciative. Like the sun needs the moon, we need each other. This is health. Modern medicine is a child learning to take his or her first step. It is naïve and inexperienced and trying its best to know and understand more about what it doesn’t know and understand. Somewhere along its way, it got lost. It took the timeless ways of the East, of the scriptures, of the Saints who healed with love and compassion and chose to reign with suppression and domination. Our founding fathers spoke of the oneness of all, the community in unity, the joy of selfless service for humanity. The modern fathers speak of me-ness. In a world with increasingly fewer trees to lean against, we stumble and yet need to be humbled
The introduction page on your website opens with the words, “I had a dream.” When did you have this dream and what caused it
The “dream” happened many years ago in meditation. It was an evocative and provocative experience that changed my life. Forever, I’ve been looking for happiness. One of my best friends is Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. We’re on the yellow brick road together, partners on a yellow path looking for happiness. Dorothy said it’s on the other side of the rainbow. Actually, genie told me what Galinda, the good witch of the North, told Dorothy…”that happiness is right in our own backyards.”
You ask what caused the dream. Well, I asked. And when you ask you shall receive. All you need to do is ask.
India, Nepal, Indonesia, Rwanda, Angola, Haiti, Surinam and Zambia—What made you choose these particular countries and, briefly, what did you do in each?
Rwanda – I was recruited by Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders) to direct a cholera program and run the internal medicine ward at a hospital around the time of the genocide 1994-1995.
Angola – There was a civil war in Angola. People were fighting for oil and diamonds. Médecins sans Frontières stationed me there to manage a rural hospital. The project was prematurely stopped because war broke out. I was airlifted out of the area, the hospital was apparently bombed and I never inquired about the whereabouts of the lovely people I knew there… because I didn’t want to cry.
Haiti – Haiti had a coup and the U.S. placed an embargo around the country to force those seizing power to step down. It worked after a number of years, but the country was plunged into further poverty as a result of economic collapse. Médecins Sans Frontières invited me to help support a medical facility providing care to the people there.
Suriname – Suriname is a country north of Brazil and sandwiched between Guyana and French Guiana. I was recruited by Doctors of the World to participate in an exploratory mission to determine if the local tribe, known as the Amazonial Bush Negroes, were being poisoned by mercury from improper gold mining.
Indonesia – I was part of a medical team from Medical Emergency Relief International (MERLIN) to assist in the aftermath of the devastating tsunami that killed 160,000 people in Banda Aceh.
Zambia– I started a non-for-profit organization—Hearts and Hands—with a friend, Anne Jones. We wanted to establish a sustainable and responsible model for humanitarian initiatives that would empower people rather than create unrealistic expectations and dependency. Our target population included grandmothers caring for orphans and children with AIDS. Zambia is one of the poorest countries in the world with the highest per capita number of orphans. So, we started out work there. I’m currently constructing a website to share our experience and project designs for others to benefit. It’ll be a site for other field workers to share their ideas as well so that vulnerable people in the trenches can be empowered.
India– I have a Guru and follow a lineage of Siddhas who awaken the latent energy we all have, called kundalini. It’s a sacred and mysterious force that gives a seeker access to truth. I lived in the Guru’s ashram for some time to feed my spirit and learn the ways of the unseen. During my time in the ashram, I volunteered in a mobile hospital providing medical care to tribal people in rural areas and assisted in a relief operation for the Gujarat earthquake that killed 20,000 people and left 600,000 people homeless.
After leaving the ashram, I worked and studied for a number of years with an Ayurvedic pulse reader studying the ancient ways of Ayurveda. Ayurveda means “knowledge of life.” It’s a philosophy and way of living a balanced and beautiful life. Its wisdom dates back over ten thousand years and remains a foundation for today’s alternative health community.
I’m currently spearheading a project in India to treat Tibetan refugees infected with Hepatitis B. The Tibetan community, along with the Chinese, have a high prevalence of this disease and left untreated many of them die from cirrhosis and liver cancer. Recently, effective medications have become available to treat this disease, but they cost $1.50 a day, which is prohibitive for most refugees. I hope to find funds to subsidize the medications for the children infected. If anyone wants to help, please contact me at email@example.com
What challenges do you encounter working in developing countries?
To receive my medical degree I was required to recite the Hippocratic Oath. The most potent part was one phrase, “I shall do no harm.” I vowed at the time to do no harm practicing medicine. That vow has been a guiding light for me in times of distress. Making decisions is often paralyzing in difficult places under difficult circumstances. One of the greatest challenges working in developing countries is doing no harm. Often times, aid workers come with good ideas, great designs and unbreakable models. On paper and in mind they all seem flawless. However, in practice unexpected collateral damage often emerges. A wise aid worker once advised me not to change anything for three months when arriving to a new project. I found this to be true. Initially, what looks wrong becomes the best option given a particular situation. Watch, listen, learn and then act.
Poverty is a formidable force. It is relentless and seems to take hold of people, their lives and their dreams and loved ones, too. Defeating it often seems like an unending battle. Another great challenge is knowing how to be with poverty. The caring heart wants to wrestle with it, bring it down, defeat it. The more seasoned and experienced soul knows how embedded it is in the minds and souls of people. Spending the day looking for food to live puts people into survival mode. They will do whatever it takes to feed themselves. A great challenge is accepting what we are capable of doing to survive. A great challenge is finding the compassion and the patience to accept the unacceptable. This is perhaps the greatest challenge of all.
Given your extensive experience serving in developing countries, what advice would you give to non-for-profit organizations currently in the field?
Charity cripples. While giving feels good, it might not be so good for the recipients. In my experience, handouts create dependency and unrealistic expectations. I believe the best way to help people in need is to provide education, to cultivate self-love and community. I think the best way to help people is to help them help themselves.
I initiated a number of projects that I believe promote responsible sustainable development. Some examples include:
1) Goats for Grannies
30 women are loaned 25 goats. The women learn how to care for them and breed them. They make appropriate goat houses to protect the animals and look after them as a community. After the first breeding, the women return the 25 goats plus 5 more. These 30 goats are then used to start another Goats for Grannies project.
2) Cuddles for Kids
Orphaned girls want to study, but do not have money to pay tuition fees. Orphaned infants with AIDS are left essentially emotionally neglected in an orphanage. I offer the girls, one dollar an hour up to twenty hours a month to cuddle the kids. In this way, the infants get loved, the orphans get educated and I get the joy of watching it happen. This project does not give school sponsorship, but obligates the girls to work to put themselves through school.
3) Fuel Efficient Stove construction.
I want to reforest plots of land, but first, I must stop the massive destruction of trees. I designed a fuel-efficient stove that cuts wood consumption down by 80%. This means less wood is needed for cooking and less trees are destroyed. I offer $2.50 to students to build these stoves. The students can then sell them to people for $5.00. If they work hard, they can make enough money to put themselves through school.. It’s a win-win-win. The children learn a skill and put themselves through school. Trees have a chance to live and I am happy.
I am currently building a website for people to share their ideas for responsible sustainable development. I will include the projects I designed with more detail on the site: www.heartsandhands.org
What particular thing that you’ve done has given you the greatest sense of achievement?
Achievement implies we are the doers. “I did this. I did that.” I do not believe we do anything. We are vehicles for things to happen through us. I think my life and the way I live inspires people. I live my truth and follow my dreams. I walk my talk and live for a greater good.
What drives you to help others? How does it make you feel?
I would be lying to say that I sacrifice anything for others. Everything I do is to feel happiness. It is coincidental that my happiness comes from helping people. There is a concept in Eastern philosophy called “Seva.” It literally means “Selfless Service.” It is said that doing Seva will nourish a person’s soul. In my experience, this is so. Doing Seva puts me into an exalted state that is so blissful and satisfying that living becomes the greatest opportunity to serve.
What advice do you have for people who would like to volunteer?
I would suggest people go out in the world, anywhere in the world and listen to their enthusiasm. Enthusiasm means en-from, theos-God. They will be led and guided. All they need to do is allow themselves to follow their passion. I would also suggest volunteers work locally. It is adventurous and exciting to work abroad, but there is need right in your own backyard.
I believe in sustainable and responsible development. Charity cripples. It disables and so I don’t do it. No free handouts is our stance (though in dire circumstances I admit I cheat a bit and give). Microloans are a good way of holding people responsible for their own climb.
The life you lead can be physically, mentally and spiritually challenging. How do you keep yourself centred and focused?
Everything is God. Everything is a gift. I remind myself that God comes in adversity and that adversity isn’t bad. Everything is an experience and from each experience we grow. So, I try to remember it is all fertilizer to make me more and more fertile so new thoughts can grow and ideas can blossom and my understandings can be shared with others to help them along their own path.
What do you do to relax?
I write, listen to music and organize what I’ve learned to share with the world.
Who has had the greatest influence on your life?
My Guru. It’s a magical relationship that words cannot express or share. The Guru gave me God, gave me myself . It’s been a big blessing.
If there is anything you could change about yourself, what would that be?
I would like to be more patient. I would like to be able to reach out more easily to others and ask for their help. I would like to be less critical and live the truths that I know to be true. In other words, I would like to be all that I know is truth.
Have you ever regretted some of the choices you’ve made? If yes, what were they and why? If no, why not?
I suppose I would have done more as a youth. I would have tried more, taken more risks, said yes to many more things than I did. I wish I could have put the fears aside and lived more on the edge. For example, I went to the Sinai Peninsula where they have some of the best snorkelling in the world. I was in a group of 250 people. Everyone went in the water, but me. I had just seen Jaws the week before and I knew he was waiting for me in those waters.
In helping others, personal lives often have to take a back seat for a long time, if not forever, and it’s difficult to form any kind of relationship when your work constantly involves others. What are your thoughts on this, do you ever become lonely?
I started writing a diary when I was 14. I’m now 53 and have never missed a day. My diary is a conversation with myself so how could I ever be alone. I’ve come to like my own company. In addition, silence is a wonderful place and friend. I learn the most from it. The world is my playground. The people of the Earth are my friends. The trees and insects and animals are my family. So, how could I ever be lonely.
What would you like to see on Earth—and don’t say “world peace,” we all want world peace?
I don’t particularly want peace. Peace doesn’t wrestle the mind. We need to be challenged and tweaked. I want everyone to know that they are God and that we’re all connected, interconnected and interdependent on each other and all living and non-living things. I want all people to experience the ecstasy of helping others.
If I told you I had enough money to give you anything you want in the world—but you can have only one thing—what would that be and why?
I want people to love themselves and others. So, give me that instead of all your money.
During your entire and very precious time in this world, I’m sure you’ve had some ups and downs, some peaks and valleys, some highs and lows. I’d like you to reflect for a moment on a high-point experience, a time when you felt most alive, most engaged, and most proud of yourself. Tell the story
Many years ago, I worked on an Indian Reservation. I was in medical school wishing to do some good. I chose a particular reservation because it was home to the poorest people in America. On my arrival, I was stunned at the poverty within the un-gated forgotten remnant of a great nation. This reservation was placed in the middle of nowhere without much to support a single human life, let alone a nation.
One evening while on call in the Emergency room, I saw a disproportionate number of people coming in with food poisoning. I thought this was curious so I went to the only food store on the reservation to check the quality of their food. To my surprise, I found that much of the food was outdated. The meats were green and had a foul stench and the dairy goods were bloated and clearly out of date. I brought a few packages of outdated meat to the manager and asked him to look into the problem. In a few words, he told me clearly that he was busy, not interested and that I wasn’t welcomed there. I told him that I was a doctor at the hospital and that we were finding numerous cases of food poisoning. I thought perhaps there was a connection between the patients and the food in the store. Upon hearing that I was doctor, he did an about face and apologized. He said they had a new meat packer and that he would sort things out immediately. He did, indeed. The following day, I went to check up on the meats and found them all relabeled — post dated for one additional week. I removed the stickers from three packages and reported the case to the authorities. But what authorities? The Native American reservations are autonomous entities and technically not under the auspices of the U.S. government. The reservation’s chief and his cronies were corrupt and no governmental agency had the right to intervene. I went to the New York Times. They weren’t interested. So, I went to channel 7. They were. They came out to investigate and interview me. The hospital did not permit filming on their land so we moved to a nearby location. I then alerted the FDA. Apparently, the autonomous status of the reservations does not apply when health issues compromise a population. Federal agents made a surprise visit and found thousands of pounds of contaminated food products. The storyline thickens and is beyond this interview, but the food was destroyed, the supermarket was monitored and I was sneaked off the reservation by the native people to protect my own life. They were grateful that someone cared about them. Apparently, the food store was one of many nationwide. I asked the White owner how a millionaire could knowingly sell diseased food to such a poor people. He said, “You’ve made a mistake, doctor, I’m a billionaire.”
This story could be a Hollywood movie. People like cops and robbers, and cowboys and Indians. But what category would it fit? Would it be a drama, an adventure, or a horror movie? It was meaningful for me because the underdogs—the Native people—stood tall and defeated Goliath. They never thought their voices would matter, but they saw collectively that they did matter. Each and everyone mattered a lot.
Imagine that you woke up five years from now and your life was working as perfectly as it could and yet practically, what would that look like?
I would have all my books published. I would be talking to large groups of people and very quickly touching their deepest core, their spirits to inspire them to follow their passions, to work collectively and elevate all humanity, to heal themselves and the world.
Complete this thought for me: If I could live this lifetime over again, I would….
Do the same as I’ve done.
I have filled a stadium with all seven billion people in the world; they’re all there and quiet, the acoustics are excellent, there’s no language barrier—they all, even the youngest, will understand what you have to say and will follow your instructions to the letter; what do you have to say to them?
Look in the mirror and see how amazing you are.
You are beautiful.
You are able.
You are kind.
You are important.