Interview with Sri Shamasunder, MD, DTM+H
A Conversation with Sri Shamasunder, Associate Clinical Professor
It is very early in the morning so let’s open with an easy introductory question: How do you normally begin your day? Is the “breakfast of champions” a double espresso or a favorite chai recipe?
I usually have coffee at home or maybe go to La Boulange. It’s so good, the best coffee shop in San Francisco, right around the corner from my house. Afternoon is the chai.
Where were you born and raised, and what were some of the observations that influenced your idealism, activism and service?
I was born and raised in the Antelope Valley near Edwards Air Force Base. In the late 70s, the U.S. was recruiting professionals from India who would end up in out-of-the-way areas. We were one of very few non-white people in that little community. I was there until I was twelve or thirteen when we moved to the San Fernando Valley in the Los Angeles area. It was an interesting experience because I was very American, being first generation, but my parents were born in India. My mom is a feisty woman. At least once a month at a local restaurant or produce store, someone would say, “Go back to your country,” and she would try to defend herself. My dad is very much like me: low-key, not confrontational, and gets along with most people. I think it made me aware of class and race little earlier than I would have been otherwise.
You have been involved with numerous organizations, such as Doctors for Peace and Doctors for Obama, geared towards improving conditions for underserved populations here in the United States and abroad. How do you distinguish between social and political activism?
In terms of medicine, the easy answer is that when you see poor patients in the hospital setting, you see the downstream result of all the things that were wrong in their lives. If you see them at the end of that trajectory, it’s almost like a Band-Aid. I realized that the more you work in poor communities, unless you become a voice for changing the upstream factors that lead to poor health outcomes, you’re on a treadmill spinning wheels and not changing the underlying issues. Healthcare in the U.S. is a volatile issue complicated with politics and big business but I think it is important to be a witness to suffering and to document what you see. That is a political act.
How do you take care of yourself?
Abroad, for doctors in Haiti or Rwanda, personal lives are pretty much nonexistent so the balance issue is a challenge. Here in San Francisco, I have a girlfriend and my sister lives around the corner. To have a social structure like family, people who know you really well that you can spend time with and not explain anything, is necessary. Abroad, I remind myself that no matter how hard you think your life is, for the patients you’re working with, life is infinitely harder. For sanity’s sake, you have to de-stress and collect yourself. I meditate and exercise, which takes off a lot of the pressure and helps process experiences. I play tennis with Niraj; he’s a really good tennis player.
The late June Jordan, the African-American poet and activist, was someone with whom you worked at UC Berkeley and who wrote a poem dedicated to you: It’s Hard to Keep a Clean Shirt Clean. Can you share how Ms. Jordan influenced your life and writing?
There is a way of seeing the world that, before I took her classes, I had only an inkling. She was so radical and had a lot of righteous anger. In 2002, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. I took her class, Poetry for the People, which was trying to understand people through what she called their “truth,” their poetry. She had an idea that when you write your truth in a compelling way, strangers would listen, pay attention and then no longer be strangers. We studied Islam, Native American poets, Arab and other poets. I was a first-year medical student when was she was dying of breast cancer but she had tons of stories and we talked almost every day for a year until she passed. She said that if you’re okay with the way the world is then you’re not paying attention and reminded us to be voices for those who are silenced; she did it herself, well and clearly.
That leads to your own ability to witness, process and create. What I’ve read of your writing is sensitive, passionate and evocative. Tell me about being a poet, about your published work as well as the experience of performing in slams. Do you still find the time to do this and where?
I don’t really perform in East Bay anymore although a lot of my friends from Berkeley are still eking out a living off writing and performing. It’s a hard task; there’s not much of a market for poetry. I try to think of myself as a writer and, at least in the last few years, writing has come out of my medical experiences. I don’t so much write for an audience as the idea of witnessing and a form of meditation. Some of the stuff I wrote in Burundi and Haiti has had a ripple effect -- people getting inspired or finding a direction that they want to work in. You never know when you put something on paper how far it might go; it can get people involved so the ripple effect has made me want to continue writing. I used to write with pencil and paper but in Haiti, I wrote on my iPhone.
What is your favorite type of music? Do you play any instruments?
I don’t play any instruments but listen to Rodrigo y Gabriella, Spanish guitarists. I like old school hip-hop: De La Soul, Tribe Called Quest, Common, and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khana, a Kuwali singer. I like jazz, Coltrane, Charlie Parker… the greats. I like any music with emotion. In college I really delved into jazz but right now, I don’t keep up as much.
What tickles your funnybone? What makes you happy?
My niece, who is one year old. We went to a turtle pond in LA and she was jumping up and down in excitement and I thought, “THAT’S why we do what we do, so people who are sick or poor can live their lives in a way that they can have that joy in their life.” Simple things. She’s hard to take care of (I babysit her all the time) but she finds joy in the same things over and over, which is incredibly exciting.
In conclusion, what “Thought for the Day” would you like to share?
To use your own skill sets to serve some way. There are so many overwhelming problems in the world but there are so many amazing individuals who find ways to do things small and well, with humility. In the Gandhian quote, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”