By Suresh Bodiwala
CHICAGO: Overseas Indian Affairs minister Ravi Vayalar, Indian ambassador Nirupama Rao, Illinois Governor Patrick Quinn, and US Senators and Congress representatives joined the Indian American doctors from all over the country at downtown Chicago’s Sheraton Hotel & Towers for the weekend 31st annual convention of the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin (AAPI), arguably the largest diaspora organization in the world.
The four-day event, which celebrated the achievements of the Indian American doctors, ended with outgoing AAPI President Narendra Kumar handing over of the gavel and torch to young Dr. Jayesh Shah on May 27.
During the event, the mornings were devoted to continuous medical education (CME) while the evening banquets provided relaxation with varied entertainment. The lunches and dinner took on the air of mini-summits, as the panels featured distinguished politicians.
While Senator Dick Durbin and American Medical Association (AMA) President Jeremy Lazarus and AMA Vice President (Corporate Diversity) Eric Peterson spoke at Friday’s lunch, Senator (D) Harry Reid, Rep. (D) Tulsi Gabbard, and Foundation for the Advancement of International Medical Association (FAIMER) Vice President P Jack Boulet spoke the next day.
Saturday’s dinner banquet featured Indian Ambassador Nirupama Rao and Congressman Peter Roskam, while Sunday’s dinner was graced by Illinois Governor Patrick Quinn, Overseas Indian Affairs Minister Vayalar Ravi and Chris Kaplan from Boehringer Ingelheim. Indian American Congressman Ami Bera delivered a video message at the Sunday lunch.
Recurrent themes during speeches included the culture of unity-in-diversity that India and the US symbolize, Asian immigration as the legitimate and necessary expansion of the earlier influx of white settlement, urgency of healthcare and immigration reform in the US, tremendous contributions of Indian American physicians to healthcare in their countries of origin and AAPI’s growing political clout as the second largest association of medical professionals next to the American Medical Association (AMA).
Lazarus, Peterson, Boulet, and Kaplan spoke of India’s contributions to medicine and the various Indo-US and public-private partnerships under way.
While US politicians underlined their close and longstanding personal ties to the Indian community, Ambassador Rao recalled her three years as ambassador to indispensable neighbor China and stressed that it is the people-to-people relationship that underwrites the Indo-US relationship.
Seated at the dais throughout with various invited speakers were AAPI executive committee and organizers: President Narendra Kumar, Convention Chair Birinder Marwah, Co-Chair Umang Patel, and Arvind Pillai. Anwar Feroz introduced the MCs at each session.
Senator Harry Reid recounted how he was born in a small community without hot water or toilet. Though born to uneducated parents, he said he managed to make it into the top third of his class at fifth grade.
“Be proud of who you are and where you came from. Remember your roots, because you can’t get away from them. We have a broken immigration system that we need to fix. Congressional Republicans have offended everybody including Republicans,” Reid declared.
Praising Tulsi Gabbard, Bharat Barai recounted how by winning the 42nd House District of the Hawaii House of Representatives at the age of 21, she became the youngest woman to be elected to a US state legislature. Nevertheless, she voluntarily sacrificed her reelection bid in 2004 in order to serve with the National Guard in Iraq, but only to be reelected in 2013 as the first Hindu member of the US Congress. Of Samoan-Caucasian parentage but having converted to Hinduism by choice as a teenager, Gabbard affirmed her attachment to India through her adopted Hindu faith and its spiritual gift of the Bhagavad Gita, the bedrock of her political commitments.
Speaking on behalf of both Indian and Hindu Americans, Tulsi Gabbard said, “My message is my life,” quoting Gandhi.
Describing her experiences while in the US army in Iraq, she referred to a billboard which read, “Is today the day?” This, she said, reminded her “of the temporary nature of our lives and these bodies and great privileges and responsibilities we have and to make sure, that every day we make positive impact and we are doing our best to be of service to others, which is the practice of Karma Yoga. That’s what you embody in your everyday medical practice.”
Gabbard said that in her struggles and anxieties and pain, she took solace and comfort in the Gita, from where “I drew strength and shelter, being inspired by the wisdom and knowledge. Today, it continues to inspire me to be service at the national level. In the midst of all the divisiveness and rhetoric, the teachings of the Gita inspire us towards the understanding on the unity that must exist between us people and souls.”
In their video-messages, Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois and Senator Dick Durbin listed the achievements and contribution of Indian Americans such as Rajiv Shah (USAID Administrator), Sunil Kumar (UC Booth School), Subra Suresh (NSF Director), Srikanth ‘Sri’ Srinivasan (U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit), and Atul Gawande (Brigham and Women’s Hospital).
Lazarus reiterated the AMA’s commitment to improving healthcare globally and in India. Lazarus also underlined the challenges to be faced: broken Medicare payment system, repealing the independent payment advisory board (IPAB), and lifting the cap on Medicare-funded graduate medical education (GME). He also voiced concern for the dire situation of international medical graduates (IMG), with their interests being underrepresented on the relevant committees
Ambassador Rao began with a sustained analogy between government bodies and physician associations as both “doing God’s work” and with similar concerns, such as financial integrity. She reported on some of India’s success stories: purchasing power parity that is third in the world, 50% drop in new HIV cases and 25% drop in HIV-related deaths over the last ten years, and development of a low-cost ($1 per dose) rotavirus vaccine to prevent severe infant diarrhea (first such breakthrough in the last hundred years). She felicitated AAPI for its health clinics, outreach, post-calamity relief work, and the successful global health summit in Kochi (Kerala) that drew 1200 delegates from around the world. Having invoked the meeting in Geneva between US Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius and the Union Minister of Health and Family Welfare Ghulam Nabi Azad, and the 35 meetings between the two sides towards collaboration, Rao urged further expansion of the many private-public partnerships already existing in India. She cited the Wipro-GE consortium to provide imaging equipment, especially for women, in Maharashtra. Referring to President Obama’s Nov. 2010 visit to India and contrasting her three years previously as ambassador of the “world’s largest modern democracy” to the Republic of China, Rao characterized US-India ties as a defining people-to-people relationship.
Governor Pat Quinn had enacted the toughest ethic reforms and is focused on the following four priorities: create jobs and turn the economy around, healthcare reform that will open access to another one million people, comprehensive immigration reform, and fostering innovation in the economy through biotech, renewal energy, etc. Translating Obama care as “I do care” (for inner city residents, etc.), the 64-year old Governor relived his long march in the August heat from the Rock Island Centennial Bridge over the Mississippi all the way across Illinois to Chicago losing 15 pounds along the way, all for the sake of healthcare — a feat he compared to Gandhi’s Salt March. He also recalled that this was the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address and Asian American Heritage Month.
Senior VP and Chief of Marketing at Boehringer Ingelheim, Chris Kaplan amply demonstrated his knowledge of Indian spirituality, tradition medicine, and Western art, through his lengthy prepared speech accompanied by a slide presentation that also featured examples of contemporary Indian art. He began with Swami Vivekananda’s message of unity-in-diversity to the 1893 World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, recalling an Upanishadic hymn from his childhood, and felt that this “compassionate view” was continuing to be implemented through the efforts of AAPI in bringing healthcare to the poor and needy in both India and the USA.
Vayalar Ravi pointed out that health indicators in Kerala were ten years ahead of the northeastern states of the federation. The 4.1% of GDP devoted to health is lower than the ratio in many other emerging nations. Private sector contributes more than the government and the future lies in public-private partnership. Medical tourism, health insurance, etc., are growing industries. Recognizing the desire of overseas Indians to contribute towards nation-building in India, Vayalar introduced the Global-India Networking of Knowledge (Global-INK) for knowledge sharing and transnational collaboration in health, education, and environment. Earlier, in the afternoon, Ravi had called a news conference with local ethnic media to better understand the needs and concerns of the diaspora communities they serve.
Saturday’s dinner banquet was emceed by Prem Rupani and Manju Sachdev. Following remarks by Narendra Kumar and Ambassador Rao’s speech, Sreenivas Reddy introduced Peter Roskam (R) as Co-Chair of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian-Americans. Rao and Roskam joined Kumar in presenting media awards to TV Asia (received by Rohit Vyas on behalf of HR Shah), Sahara TV (Sudhir Vaishnav), Parikh Worldwide Media (Sudhir Parikh), Indian Abroad (received by George Joseph on behalf of Rajeev Bhambri), Telegraph (KP Nayar), India Tribune (Prashant Shah), India Post (Ramesh Soparwala), and Suresh Jilla (photography).
At Sunday lunch, Anwar Feroz introduced Pillai, who addressed the assembly. The following MDs received special awards: Mani Menon (Most Distinguished Physician), Dattatreyudu Nori (Most Distinguished Physician Service to AAPI), and Sonia Malhotra (Most Distinguished MSRF). Board of Trustees Chair Durgesh Mankikar was then invited to present awards to each member of the 22-member Board. Convention Advisor Prem Rupani also served as Master of Ceremonies.
Sunday evening banquet began with Feroz introducing Rupani and Swaminathan as MCs. The American and Indian national anthems were sung by David Cangelosi and Tara Swaminathan respectively. Minister Vayalar Ravi, whose ministry had partnered with AAPI in hosting the successful (sixth) Global Summit 2013 in January, underlined the need to further develop Indo-US collaboration in healthcare. Introduced by Pratap Kumar MD, Governor Quinn listed all the measure he has implemented or championed of relevance to AAPI and Indian Americans.
Ravi and Quinn joined Narendra Kumar in conferring Presidential Awards on Kaplan and Feroz, and also on MDs George Thomas, Vinod Shah, Jagan Ailinani, Shrikant Mishra, Ketan Mehta, Rajinder Arora, and Birinder Marwah. Convener Marwah took great pride at having been designated to show off Chicago, his home for 35 years, to AAPI visitors. He was grateful at this opportunity to discover the extraordinary talent among physicians of Indian origin attested by the achievements, presentations, and appreciations of CME speakers. Introduced by Marwah, Kumar received a special award from Minister Ravi and delivered the presidential address. He then introduced the new President-elect Jayesh Shah, who received the gavel and made resounding acceptance speech, where he invited everyone the scheduled conventions in San Antonio (Texas) and Ahmedabad (Gujarat, India).
The evening entertainment was designed around parallel themes such as introducing the beauty of the city and its cultural life to out-of-town visitors, bringing here to Chicago the diversity idiosyncrasies of the motherland, and overall to show that hardworking Indian doctors could be also artistically gifted and fun-loving people. Early arrivers discovered on Thursday evening that “AAPI Got Talent” (variety show). While the Sheraton stands along the scenic river walk, the Friday evening lake cruise—following the indoor fashion show—offered wider views of the cityscape, with socializing over dinner followed by dancing.
Saturday evening featured playback singer KK (Krishnakumar Kunnath) from Mumbai, while many left to enjoy the Chicago blues. Performing in North America for the first time on Sunday, Soorya Festival from Kerala directed by Soorya Krishnamoorthy offered nonstop medley of Sanskrit chants, male acrobatics, classical Bharatanatyam and Kathak, tribal and fusion dances, movie songs from the regional languages (Hindi, Tamil, etc.), and thumping percussion exchanges. “King of Comedy” Raju Srivastava from Mumbai obliged the Americanized professionals, who still filled the hall well past midnight, to rollover with fits of laughter as he reminded them in Hindi of their often rather “primitive” roots in India.
An exhibition hall, formally inaugurated by Senator Durbin on Friday, featured a wide range of pharmaceutical products, medical services, support systems, and also other vendors of Indian clothes and handicrafts, even real estate, retirement homes in South Asia, and matchmaking services for professionals.
Major sponsors of the AAPI convention of Indian American doctors were Qatar Airways and Bharat Matrimonial, which offered a well-attended standup comedy on miscommunication between the sexes, particularly those brought up in a desi environment.