A Life’s Journey to Shishur Sevay

Medical School Graduation Picture

Medical School Graduation Picture

I was born with vision.  It’s just how I am.  I watched everything and everyone around me, studied them, studied the world I lived in, the worlds I read about.  I thought a lot about God, applying my nine years old scientific abilities — with no definitive answer but deciding it didn’t really matter, because I was going to live as if God existed.

I can’t remember when I wasn’t aware of orphans and orphanages.  I write these things because my establishing Childlife Preserve Shishur Sevay is the logical outcome of my visions and my life.   My childhood and adolescent heroes were Margaret Mead,  Dr. Albert Schweitzer and Dr. Tom Dooley.  All of these figures have now been vilified for their politics, for who they were.  But they were the pioneers and pioneers often don’t get everything totally right.   In the years just before I started Shishur Sevay, I remember thinking that it’s easy to be a critic.  The real question was whether I could do better.

From my adolescent heart, a high school essay about “The Meaning of Life.”  The essay was important enough to me so I managed to keep it throughout my life.

From my sixteen year old heart

From my sixteen year old heart

I became a doctor and practiced in the low country of rural South Carolina where people had never been to a doctor.  I opened a clinic on St. Helena Island, in a building that had been the first school for freed slaves.

I became a mother, finding myself alone with my child in South Carolina.  I put her in a backpack and practiced medicine that way.  I was the official doctor for the Special Olympics one year.  I later became the medical director of Beaufort Jasper Comprehensive Health, one of the the first government funded comprehensive health care programs in the US.  I supervised a staff of 200.  My daughter, first an infant and then a toddler came to work with me.  I’d hired a caretaker and bought a van so she was with me as I covered the eight clinics in the two county area.  I covered obstetrics for our program in the local hospital.  Eventually I left South Carolina because of violence and threats against me.  I moved north with my daughter, my dog, and my cat.

Mothering and doctoring were connected.  I wanted more training in Obstetrics and Gynecology.  I became the first part time OB-GYN resident in the US, accepting a position in Boston in a Harvard teaching hospital.  I wanted part time (80 hrs a week instead of 120) so I could also mother my child. I only lasted seven months, but the part-time residents who followed me did very well.  The people who break barriers are a different breed from those who follow.  We tend to question and challenge more of what we see; we tend not to be obedient.

I published my first book, A Woman in Residence (Random House 1982, Kindle 2013), in 1982, an autobiographical account of  that training in Obstetrics and Gynecology.  The book is from my journals and is about the abuses of women as patients, and the moral conflicts that led to my leaving.  I published my second book, Self-Help for Premenstrual Syndrome also in 1982.  I was the first doctor in the first US clinic treating PMS, and my book was the first in the US.  At the time I could not get Random House, the publisher of my first book to take the book about PMS.  So I self-published.  It sold so well that Random House then bought it from me.  Years later I published a third book, The Pre-Teen’s First Book About Love, Sex, and AIDS.  It took ten years to get a publisher, and then it was taken by American Psychiatric Press, after peer-review.  I’m persistent.

We moved a lot, always due to the work I was doing.  By 1980, I wanted a second child and pursued adoption.  Did I “choose” India?  Not really.  I had in my mind there was a child I was to raise, but I didn’t really know where she was.  I left that to destiny, to God, and the place in my heart to find my child.   So, my younger daughter arrived from Kolkata, India at 10 weeks of age.  I re-lactated and nursed her.  I hired a secretary willing to care for her in the office, and I took my daughter to work with me, as I had done ten years earlier with my first child.

There is a theme here….. about finding a way to weave together a life of mothering and work.  In those years I practiced medicine, wrote books, taught at medical schools, studied…. steeped myself in issues of medical ethics and reproductive technology.  At the University of Pittsburgh I taught Psychiatry, and Medical Ethics.  I immersed myself in the issues of reproductive technologies, surrogate motherhood, embryo transfer.  I defended the rights of surrogate mothers and was closely involved with the Baby M case and others. I wrote Op Ed’s — had one in Wall Street Journal…, and impressed my daughters (finally!) with an article in Glamour Magazine.  I did the book tours, TV, radio.   But I was still a single mother raising children, trying to titre our economic needs with having time to be with them.  I never let the “glamorous” aspect of my life define how we lived.  I never mixed up what people said I “deserved” with what I could afford.

I don’t think there has ever been a “smooth” time in my life, because in between my accomplishments there were usually conflicts of values.   I’ve been a whistle-blower more than once, and have been punished for that.  I’ve personally been through rape and a head injury.  But I’m like one of those sand filled children’s toys that you punch down and it pops back up.

The question of my corporate life often comes up, and why I left that for the life I have now.  The real question though is why I went to Johnson & Johnson.    They recruited me as they were looking for leadership in Women’s Health.  I accepted because I wanted the skills that the corporate world would teach me.  I wanted the discipline, management skills, the international experience with the private and public sectors.   By going to J&J I would also be economically freed for the first time.  The money I made in those years made it possible for me to establish Shishur Sevay.  The skills and experience I gained were the training  I needed to do what I am doing now.  I love telling stories:  One day when I was with J&J I was having a particularly difficult time.  I was alone in an elevator when I started to chat with God.  I asked, “God, why another test?  You keep giving me tests, and I keep passing them.  Why another one?  This is boring.”  (My God enjoys my sense of humor.)  Anyway, I got an answer.  “This isn’t a test.  This is training.”  I liked that.  I’m pretty well trained, but I also think we are always in training….

Ironically, I accepted the job at J&J while I was still in cognitive rehab for the head injury I’d sustained while at the University of Pittsburgh.  I’d been told I would never be able to handle a stressful job again.  At J&J I was criticized a few times for being too dependent on my secretaries — and that was a result of the injuries.   But they never knew and I’ve never really written it til now.    I spent three years as Worldwide Director of Medical Affairs in one of the consumer division companies.  I had broadened my scope to R&D, Quality Control, Regulatory Bodies, Advertising, PR, and Marketing.  I handled consumer and professional education, and represented J&J with the EU and the European Trade Association of Non-Woven Goods.  I was then promoted to Executive Director of the Johnson & Johnson Institute for Children, a worldwide philanthropy program coming out of the Corporate Social Responsibility Department.   I’m not sure it’s anywhere on record, but I was able to get J&J to give their Mumbai office $10,000 for the Tata Insititute of Social Sciences to bring Childline to Mumbai.   But in other situations, I also watched money we gave out being used in ways that never reached the intended recipients.  I thought about that when I decided to start Shishur Sevay:  how could I take my relatively limited amount of money and actually make something happen here… money to action, accountability, and a vigilance about how easily it can disappear.

In 1999 I discovered I had Stage II breast cancer.  I’m still here, but the cancer had a profound effect on me…. a cliche… and brought me full circle back to the orphans I’d written of in high school.  This time though, those orphans were real.  When I adopted, I always wondered what happened to the children not adopted.  I learned in my stretches of time here in India working with NGOs that the real orphans were in the government institutions, and that the general attitude was that “nothing could be done.”  So I set about the challenge of starting a home, to show what could be done.

When I was a child I looked up in the sky and saw a flock of migrating birds.  I turned to my father and asked, “How do they know where to go?”    He said, “It’s the address they get.”  So here I am, doing what I’m supposed to be doing.  Shishur Sevay is the address I got.  

A Beautiful Life

A Beautiful Life

…the tenacity of a mother searching for her lost children

 I have some posts in mind, about who I am, and what led me to where I am today, in Kolkata, mother to twelve orphaned girls.  When you know me better, you can see that my life today is a logical outcome of who I am, and who I have been throughout my life.  I don’t remember exactly why I wrote this four years ago.  I was trying to explain myself. 

“They Turned Them Back In Stalingrad!”

From the mind and memory of Dr. Michelle Harrison, 29 November 2009

The year was 1942.  My mother had gone into labor on Thanksgiving, the 26th of November that year, and had delivered me in the afternoon of the 27th.  The following morning my father came to visit her in the hospital.  He leaned over to kiss his beautiful young wife, and with pride and joy announced, “They turned them back in Stalingrad!”  She said, “But David, the baby…”  “Well,” he told her reassuringly, “there is always plastic surgery.”  I had first appeared to the world in the shadows of World War II, and with my face a bit caved in. 

 My appearance was a terrible shock to my mother, as the nurses had initially, and mistakenly, brought her a beautiful ten-day-old red haired boy.  She adored him for the hours he was with her.  I do not joke, but on my 60th birthday she was still remembering and talking about that baby, how beautiful and perfect he was, how happy she was holding him, talking to him, how shocked she was when they brought me to her.  Part of her shock was guilt.  She blamed herself for my face because, “no one taught me how to give birth.”

 So, by the time I was one day old, there were stories to tell, stories and themes, personal and political, that would be with me throughout my life.  As for my face, it mended on its own, probably within a day or two, but that part of the story is never told.  I think I just had an ordinary newborn smushed-in face.  To my mother though, I never really looked right.  She longed for the “perfect” ten-day-old red haired boy she had held in the hours after giving birth.  She also longed for a son, which she never had.   

 I have another day-of-my-birth story.  I became a doctor.  One focus of my work was the early relationships of mother and child, in pregnancy, childbirth, and the newborn period. I once participated in a meditation and hypnosis workshop where we were supposed to regress back to our lives before we were born.  But I could only get back as far as my birth.  The delivery room was cold and gray.  I saw myself being born; I looked around and there was my mother, frightened, lying on the table.  Then the doctors were holding me upside down, dangling me by my feet as was the custom.  I was screaming and screaming at the top of my lungs, “You are doing it wrong!  You are doing it wrong!”  No one was listening to me.  

 In 1982, I published a book, A Woman in Residence (Random House 1982; Penguin 1994; Kindle Edition 2013), an autobiographical account of my training in Obstetrics and Gynecology.  It is an expose; it is about the institutionalized abuses of women; it is about how childbirth should be practiced, not how it is practiced.  It is my strongest voice, and the words no one listened to in the hospital room that day I was born.  I am persistent.  I have the memory of an elephant, and the tenacity of a mother searching for her lost children.

Michelle Harrison



November 2013
%d bloggers like this: