The Wages of Health

Manmeet Kaur and Prabhjot Singh made a commitment to serving their community. Despite enduring a terrifying act of violence, they haven’t broken it.

by Paul Hond Published Winter 2013-14
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“Sikhs have had a long military history of serving with the British, with the Allies in World War II, their own resistance in the 1500s against the Mughal armies, and of defending Hindus from mass Islamic conversions in India. This is part of an oral tradition that we grow up with: how to comport yourself in times of duress in an ethical manner.”

Singh stressed that his own response shouldn’t necessarily be a model for others who have endured such an event.

“If someone went through this and feels angry or upset, I would never rob that person of his or her authentic emotions. If you’re upset and you’re hurt and you haven’t had time to process it, I would not, as a physician, say, Pull up a smile and get out there.

“The difference with us is that we are so embedded here. And we’re fortunate to be part of such incredible resources that allow me to feel that I can do something, that there’s a meaningful way forward. There is no need for me to rattle my saber simply because I can. Rather, I have to think about the fact that I’m going to be working in the same place, with the same people. So it’s not just a moment of errant generosity. It’s that we have a lot of work to do and we are doing it.”

The two coaches in the clinic finish their role-playing exercise. At the long table, Hoy-Rosas and the other coaches praise the older woman on her empathy and confidence. Hoy-Rosas then offers a critique.

“What I’d really liked to have seen here,” she says, “is some discussion of how the member was feeling, because the symptoms she had are basically hypoglycemia. Her sugar’s going to be low. I’d like to have seen encouragement for her to check her blood sugar the next time something like that happens, and a little education around what to do: ‘If that happens again, it’d be great if you checked your blood sugar. And if your sugar is lower than seventy, take a one-carb snack.’ That’s a teachable moment right there. She did something she shouldn’t have done, she had a negative consequence: that’s a beautiful teachable moment. We don’t want to miss those.”

The essential building blocks of Sikhism are oneness and love,” says Simran Jeet Singh, the PhD candidate in religion, who was born in San Antonio and earned his master’s degree at Harvard. “Every action that a Sikh takes is inspired by love and the intention of creating unity in the world.”

Singh names the three core precepts of the religion: Naam Japna (remember the divine), Vand Chakna (share your gifts), and Kirat Karna (live ethically and work honestly), saying, “The Sikh religion places emphasis on spiritual development and social contribution. We’re taught that loving worship is expressed through service, and Sikhs constantly try to integrate service into their professional work.”

Sikhism is a monotheistic, egalitarian religion (the assigning of “Singh” and “Kaur” was meant to erase the caste signifiers encoded in surnames), founded by Guru Nanak around the year 1500 in the Punjab. Nanak decried the conflict between Hindus and Muslims, and preached a message of equality and unity, gaining followers called sikhs, or disciples.

“Guru Nanak set the precedent for how to live our lives,” says Simran Singh. “He constantly served those around him, and focused especially on serving people in need. Sikhs have long developed institutions that help underprivileged communities with all types of basic necessities, from food and shelter to education and medical attention.”

There are twenty-five million Sikhs worldwide, mostly in the Punjab, and about 500,000 in the US. As Prabhjot Singh points out, “99.9 percent of people with beards and turbans in America are Sikhs.”

“It was an uninviting block, treeless and barren, lined with soot-colored walk-ups that cast heavy shadows for most of the day,” wrote a future US president in his 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father.

That description of East 94th Street between First and Second Avenue mostly holds, save for the bright blue awning of the Mount Sinai clinic. Thirty years after Columbia undergrad Barry Obama sat on his fire escape to smoke cigarettes and “study the dusk washing blue over the city,” the work being done on this block may influence the future of President Obama’s landmark legislation. It was here that the student Obama got the phone call from Kenya about his father’s death, and it is here, now, that a doctor with roots in Kenya and India is bringing from Africa the dream of the healing power of community. Singh and Kaur know how real that power is.

At City Health Works, the coaches have finished their training and are working full-time. There are six coaches in all, and together they will be responsible for managing the goal-setting game plans of five hundred people.

Almost two months after his assault, Singh has regained his vigor, even as he continues to go through “heavy orthodontics.” His assailants are still at large. As the investigation continues, so does Singh: he meets with students, sees his patients, works on his local and global health-care endeavors. In mid-November, Singh and Kaur spend the holiday of Guru Nanak Jayanti — the birthday of Guru Nanak — with Simran Singh at the Richmond Hill gurdwara, or temple, in Queens.

“Growing up, I didn’t really have strong ties with the Sikh community,” Kaur says. “Prabhjot didn’t either. In the past, this response we’ve seen for Prabhjot couldn’t have happened, because we didn’t have much of a sangat, which in Sikhi is a community. Sangat is a really important part of our religion: having this community that you work with, that you do service with. We have that now.”

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