Bring back the Village
By Dr Vani Arjunamani
Only my father would send us to school on a Sunday, two days after arriving in Australia. We attended Balar Malar, a school that taught Tamil - my father wanted to improve the literacy of my sister and I, despite being fluent verbally. At Balar Malar 34 years ago, my sister and I became acquainted with girls who are still our friends! They lived far away and attended different schools; our friendship blossomed during school holidays travelling on trains to one another’s homes for sleepovers. Who could forget our Thirukural teacher, bell bottom-wearing, curly haired Dr Muthukrishnan, who taught us ancient Tamil sage Thiruvalluvar’s couplets?
As child migrants, we embraced joy on weekends. A few Indian families and my family went sightseeing every weekend. It eased the negative school experiences, where being an Indian kid sometimes attracted unwelcome attention. My father became very involved in community activities, so eventually, the trips ceased. He busily attended meetings in times before Zoom. At the time, missing my father, I promised myself 'family first'.
I entered medicine at 26 after determining the corporate IT workplace values failed to align with mine. I was service-oriented, and studying again created more networks. My medical school friends and I spent nine months in Dubbo, where we lived, cooked and studied together in hospital accommodation. I ventured to Broken Hill, Wilcannia and Menindee to learn general practice in the land of red sand, which you can never forget as it leaves marks on your car and clothes wherever you go.
General Practice chose me because I love to know a bit about everything. In terms of the breadth of the subject matter and patient population, no other discipline surpasses it. The continuity of care is very appealing. You become familiar with families as their children grow up and grieve when elders pass. You never know who will walk through the door and what diagnostic dilemma will dance through my mind. My sister called the job transactional, but in my eyes, it is relational.
Perhaps my ‘family first’ adage, my medical studies, or career change caused my parents and my sister’s family to be the only network for my children. Possibly, it was because my friends lived far away and their children were not of similar ages. My children therefore had no regular weekend trips like I did, instead sailing from one activity to another almost every day. Even attending the local Tamil school did not create a network for them as it did for me.
Networks do come from unexpected sources. My son's school friends were predominantly Indian, and their parents were medical professionals. In such a manner, my network grew, and I started to interact with my neighbouring first-generation migrants of medical background. Their social networks were far more expansive than in my childhood, conceivably due to more Indian migrants. It was wonderful to have the connection. We still share the pickups and drop-offs for my sons’ tuition. I am eternally grateful for their support and my sons for the connection.
When my eldest son started high school, the mother of one of his peers was also a GP called Vani. She requested assistance with community talks on Zoom through the Health Professionals Network (HPN). HPN is a cluster of medical and allied health professionals on a WhatsApp group. Pre HPN, my network was a street and post HPN, it became a village. Many members lived within walking distance of my home, and I never knew. Modern lifestyle blinds us from apparent treasures.
When the delta wave was rocking India, HPN promptly fundraised for oxygen concentrators. It was terrific how HPN assisted overseas student relatives diagnosed with cancer with no medicare and unable to return home. Similarly, they distributed covid medical packs during the harsh Sydney lockdown.
My friend, Dr Vani soon added Dr Saroja Srinivasan, an eminent psychologist who worked in Australia for over 50 years, to HPN. She was none other than Balar Malar's founder. I was privileged to be in a panel discussion with her titled Chillout before you Burnout. Incredibly, my recent networks linked me with one person who made my original network possible.
Interestingly Dr Muthukrishnan, a GP hypnotherapist, was instrumental in resetting my mindset in juggling life stressors during COVID, being unable to homeschool my boys and enforcing masks and recommending vaccination at my workplace to reticent patients causing explosive consults. My creativity and productivity increased exponentially following his training. I had the privilege of adding Dr Muthukrishnan to HPN.
It is funny looking back on my journey, as it is due to COVID that my network bloomed, that I even found The Link and Dr Dipti Talaulikar. For me, COVID cured my social isolation and brought back my village.