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Volume 1, Issue 3
Autumn 2005:

An Evening with Ashish Goel

Elaine Adler

Cell 2 Soul. 2005 Autumn; 1(3):a6

As we were preparing for our first issue of Cell2Soul, we were delighted to receive an essay from Ashish Goel, a young physician in New Delhi, India. There was no question that we would publish From the Other Side of Midnight, his account of an accident in which he was severely injured. His observations of his medical care and recovery provide a peek into how such an experience can profoundly affect one's views and life. The article can be found in Issue 1 of Cell2Soul.

Ashish traveled beyond the borders of his country for the first time in March 2005, landing in Boston to attend a week-long conference on Medical Research Ethics at the Harvard School of Public Health. Through email exchanges, I arranged to pick him up one evening for an in-person encounter.

We instantly clicked. I was glad to see that he didn't seem to want to hide under his seat as I drove through the mess of rush hour traffic through the Harvard Medical Hospitals district and then through Fenway Park traffic. (Had I known there was a baseball game, I would have thought twice about our route.) I found myself explaining that the young men frantically waving t-shirts and yelling were hawkers trying to get people to park in their lots.

What should have been a 5 minute drive to the restaurant took 15. The baseball fans we had seen walking toward the stadium had filled every available parking space. We finally found a spot a half mile past the restaurant.

I offered Ashish a jacket to wear for our long walk. He was dressed for the 80 degree temperature that greeted him when he left his quarters early in the morning. During the day, a front dropped the temperature to the mid-50s. My Jewish mother instinct told me to grab a jacket on my way out the door, just in case. He first refused the offer. Once outside, he admitted that he was cold and would appreciate the extra layer. He expressed wonderment at my gesture. I suggested that any Indian mother would have done the same thing. He agreed.

Turning a corner at an apartment building, we burst out laughing. On the small lawn was a grand old wooden piano grinning yellowed ivories. Out of the top spilled a profusion of petunias. The piano bench, waiting for someone to sit and play a tune, splashed geraniums. Ashish was happy to find there was still sufficient light to capture this memorable scene with his camera. The lesson: had we found a parking place in front of the restaurant, we would have been denied this playful picture.

Photograph of the author taken by Ashish Goel

Once seated in the restaurant, Ashish and I spoke of a myriad things. We are both the type to jump around, going off on tangents, raising questions that get conversations side-tracked. The poor waitress returned at least four times before we finally opened the menu. Though we ultimately devoured delicious vegetarian French-Cambodian offerings, the nourishment we both received during our meal did not come from the morsels we found on our plates.

I learned that the ethics conference was attended by 40 medical professionals from 25 countries, including Peru, Nicaragua, India, China, European countries, and the United States. The common language was English, with varying degrees of facility. Ashish's English is impeccable. He was finding sessions with group discussions more rewarding than lectures.

Many discussions focused on past transgressions of medical experiments conducted on prisoners of war in different countries, on concentration camp inmates during the Holocaust, on prisoners in jails, on patients given placebos for decades despite the availability of drugs that would have alleviated their symptoms. Revealing such situations provided the seeds for considering ethical ramifications of future medical research.

At the age of 30, Ashish is a wise old soul. He possesses a brilliant mind combined with a compassionate heart and humility. He is able to consider the deep and profound questions and potential consequences of actions. At the conference, he found himself throwing out possible scenarios, stimulating discussion that produced no definitive answers. Someone finally turned to him and asked what the answer is. Ashish responded that there are no answers, only questions.

I asked Ashish if he knows of Elie Wiesel. He admitted that he does not. Wiesel, Holocaust concentration camp survivor, writer, academic, Nobel Prize for Peace recipient, and one of the most profound thinkers of our time, has often said the very same words.

Ashish elaborated on the events and effects of his accident. I learned about life and the medical system in India. He had questions about the United States. We shared personal ideas and discovered that we are simpatico in philosophies of life, death, religion, society, ethics, living in harmony with the environment, mind-body connections, etc. There are few with whom I find such synchronicity, particularly combined with a desire to engage in such deep discussion.

Given all he and his countrymen have been led to believe about Americans, Ashish expressed pleasure to find compassionate soulmates here. His preconceived expectations caused surprise when the family that hosted him for two nights went out of their way to make his visit as pleasant as possible.

His comments made me realize that we truly are the "Ugly Americans" to the rest of the world, the result of movies, TV, the press, and governmental actions. No wonder we are hated around the globe. Of course, if I didn't personally experience so many caring individuals and grass-roots efforts that give me hope, and evaluated our country solely based on the media, I would have the same view. Indeed, I am no longer the proud American I once was.

We talked on and on. Suddenly I noticed that we were almost the last table with patrons, and the staff was cleaning up. Heading back to his room at the YMCA, I asked Ashish if he had seen Harvard University. He had not, and didn't foresee an opportunity during his remaining time in Boston. We decided that a drive-by in the dark would be better than not seeing it at all. I turned the car around.

Crossing the bridge from Boston into Cambridge, Ashish uttered, "This is the first time I'm seeing the Charles River." I am constantly awed to see how the mystique of Harvard and its environs travels so far and wide.

We drove by the dormitories, through Harvard Square, and around the walled campus. Frustrated by the rare and inadequate peeks through dark and narrow gaps in the wall, I offered to park and take Ashish for a midnight walk through Harvard Yard. My hunch is that he didn't want to put me out at the late hour. In retrospect, I'm sorry I didn't just park and do it.

When I pulled up to the curb at the Y, we found ourselves reluctant to leave one another, knowing there was still more to share. I got out of the car so we could end our visit with a hug before parting. Ashish asked if I would be safe driving back home, and I assured him I would be.

What a rare privilege to meet this young man at the start of his career, when he is already effecting changes in attitudes and practice. Ashish presented me with a book of essays that he recently compiled, called Doctors Do Cry...., published by Paras Medical Publisher, Hyderabad, India. He located doctors from around the world who contributed their experiences with cases that touched their hearts and souls. It is the essence of what we would like to see in Cell2Soul.

One day, perhaps the themes will become more pervasive, and the practice of medicine will once again be viewed as humane, caring, and patient-oriented. There is hope in the knowledge that we have someone like Ashish walking this earth to help make it so.

It is moments like these that keep me going.

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