October 19th, 2012

“Aren’t You A Doctor, Baba? Can’t You Make Him Better?”

Two-and-a-half years ago, my 5-year-old son, Jesse, and I walked by a homeless man sleeping on the sidewalk on a sunny morning near our home. For the rest of the day and the entire next week, he asked me whether I thought the man was all right.  I admitted that I did not know, upon which he asked me, “Aren’t you a doctor, baba? Can’t you make him better?” Every day for the entire next week, Jesse asked me about the man and confided in me that he was thinking about him a lot.

His question was seemingly straightforward enough, “Is the man alright?”  What I found deeply disturbing was that the man’s plight did not concern me as much as it did my son. “Can’t you make him better?” How many times had I been asked this question in the sterile confines of my clinic or hospital, and how many times had I responded by ordering diagnostic tests and treatments? Yet, outside of the hospital, I realized I had become complacent and removed from my earlier convictions and activism throughout college and medical school. Distant were the periods of my life when I had spent 6 years teaching literacy in Appalachian Kentucky, lobbying for the non-profit hunger group Bread for the World, and living and working on the Navajo reservation. I quickly realized that I needed to change, and fast.

So, I decided to hike in honor of those who struggle to make ends meet on a daily basis and because I was born a gifted hiker. On October 26, 2010, I embarked on a grand hike to raise money to support Church World Service: a non-denominational and non-missionary hunger organization) that implements programs worldwide to ensure food security for individuals and families in the U.S. who are barely able to put food on the table, provides emergency direct relief to refugees in war-torn nations, and implements sustainable rural health and development projects in developing countries.  I decided to hike from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon through the bottom to the North Rim, and then back to the bottom and to the original starting point—traversing 50 miles in all and 22,000 feet in total elevation change—within a 24-hour period.  I started out at 3 a.m. in sub-freezing temperatures and 20 mph winds and miraculously (at least to me), made it back 22 hours later at 1 a.m. in a moderate state of ketosis.  I had figured if I could dream up a big enough effort that inspired others, people would respond in kind.

And how they have!  We raised $34,000 that first year, and I never imagined I would do it again, especially since I spent the next 2 weeks limping on hospital ward rounds upon return.  I was asked and encouraged by my supporters to repeat the trek last year, and I was able to complete it in 20-1/2 hours and in markedly better shape, raising $43,000.  This coming Monday, October 22nd, I will be embarking on this 50-mile grueling journey for a third time, but this time with 4 other individuals who have committed to walk with me in solidarity for the cause.  And this year, we have already raised over $60,000.

Once upon a time, I had considered the priesthood as my vocation. I thought seriously about it in college. I have found this trek in the Grand Canyon each year to be a spiritual and transforming journey. I have been changed, and my kids and I are involved in frequent discussions about social and economic justice. Having felt powerless, I now feel part of the solution for the enormous needs of our society. I have returned to my roots—to the very reasons as to why I chose medicine as a profession and a vocation in the first place. I now devote—in a more conscious way—my daily actions in solidarity with all people in our society, and I can finally tell my son Jesse that, while I may not be able to help each and every homeless person we meet on the street, we can greet them with dignity and friendship and we can be part of the solution. And I can look at him and answer yes: we can each make our world, however broken, a better place than when we entered it.

Click here to learn more about Dr. Chan’s trek in the Grand Canyon and to support his walk.

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