As pleasant surprises come, a recent phone call from a colleague and friend, local gastroenterologist Harsha Vittal MD, certainly ranks as one of the most unexpected. I had just dropped off an obstetric patient in the recovery room, so when my phone rang, I expected the call to be about the patient.
“Hey Harrison, you got a second?” Harsha asked in a serious tone. Refusing to tell me what it was about, I hurried down to the operating room front desk, where I told him to meet me. Was a patient having complications? My thoughts, as always in the hospital, were about patient care. That’s what practicing doctors do— they think about patients.
As I saw Dr. Vittal smiling, though, my fears subsided. “Vanila is running for Congress”, he blurted out.
“Vanila Singh? Our Vanila?” I asked incredulously. The thought seemed so incongruous, initially. A local physician from my community attempting to join Congress? Why would Vanila Singh MD, a successful physician, professor, mother and colleague want to go to Washington?
My first thoughts flashed to the image of the actor James Stewart as the rookie Senator Smith in the Capra film classic, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. In the movie, a wholesome yet naive citizen is staged to win the election and then finds himself soon pitted against an entrenched political machine. For better or worse, the movie encapsulates the disconnect between politicians and their citizens— a perception that has only grown wider today. How would Dr. Singh be effective against the sclerotic politicos if she got elected?
I first met Dr. Singh while volunteering as a community attending physician at the Stanford operating room in 2005. She had just been recruited to Stanford as part of a group of acute pain specialists to help teach the growing field of acute pain management in postoperative patients. Her job was straightforward— eliminate patient pain—which had become a new patient care priority for the Stanford Anesthesia Department.
The day we met, Dr. Singh was teaching a resident physician how to do a femoral nerve block for total knee replacement surgery. As commonly happens in teaching hospitals, a veritable mob of students and resident physicians were watching the patient’s procedure. Though I was familiar with the procedure, the use of ultrasound machines to aid in anesthesia nerve blocks was new technology at the time. I was hoping to bring the technology back to my hospital and patients in San Jose.
I still remember the sight of the white-coated Dr. Singh, teaching next to a giant ultrasound machine that was nearly the size of a small car, directing the procedure over the draped patient’s leg. “Hi, my name is Vanila, one of the new regional anesthesiologists here”, she said with a diplomatic smile.
After we introduced ourselves, I expressed concern about using a machine so large in the cramped patient spaces at my hospital. Recognizing the problem, Dr. Singh leaned over and whispered, “This ultrasound machine was donated. You can do a complete cardiology exam with this machine, too, but honestly you can use a much smaller and cheaper machine to do regional blocks.”
I expressed relief as I watched the procedure, but whispered back, “Do you ever do cardiac exams, though, with this machine?” “No, never,” Dr. Singh admitted, “but I can check your heart after we are done with the block”, she jokingly deadpanned with a smile. I giggled at the joke, but her point was well-taken— the giant ultrasound machine was excessive and too expensive a machine for the purpose. “I think my heart is working just fine, thank you”.
Years later, after we bought our own ultrasound machines (albeit smaller and cheaper) in San Jose for regional anesthesia blocks, I met Dr. Singh again, this time at a CSA Board of Directors meeting. She spoke at the meeting about the need to restore Medicare funding for teaching hospitals and how congressional cuts had particularly targeted resident physician teaching. We chatted a bit afterwards and she joked, “How’s your heart doing?” again with a smile.
I thought about those light moments when I first heard about Dr. Singh’s candidacy. In a world in which professional politicians roam Washington and Sacramento, Dr. Singh has been an effective citizen. She has extensive experience as a teaching physician at Stanford, a rare institution that welcomes all patients no matter what, and has treated and touched people and patients of all nationalities, religions, incomes and sexuality. As physicians, dividing patients into boxes isn’t an option. We treat everyone. Our ultimate instinct, even if the call is at 2AM, is to serve humanity – all of it. That is Dr. Singh’s experience: profound and universal human contact and care.
Dr. Singh’s candidacy is a growing trend, albeit small, of physicians being elected to Congress (with Ami Bera MD from Sacramento being the latest). I welcome this trend and support practicing physicians and health care professionals who seek office, regardless of party, because of their deep experience with humanity. It’s a high bar to ask of a politician and one that few meet in general.
A question of policy? No, I believe it is a question of heart, as in, where does your heart lie? How about that? A citizen with a public-trust heart. Dr. Vanila Singh—mother, professor and physician, driving her kids to and from school, and rushing to work— wants to go to Washington. We are fortunate to have a hard-working, good-willed citizen take the time and effort to step forward and represent her district. Somewhere I think Frank Capra and James Stewart would clap their hands in approval—I certainly do.
Learn more about our colleague, Dr. Vanila Singh, at http://www.vanilasingh.com. Dr. Singh is running for the House of Representatives in Congressional District 17, which covers Fremont, Cupertino, Milpitas and North San Jose.
Dr. Chow is a frequent contributor to CSA Online First. Currently he is in private practice and is the Chair for the Department of Anesthesia at Good Samaritan Hospital, San Jose. He also holds an adjunct community faculty position at Stanford School of Medicine and has a master’s degree in Health Services Research in addition to his medical degree from Stanford.