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

13 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. joycegodwingrubbs2
    Nov 09, 2013 @ 21:55:26

    My friend your journey has been long and well thought out. You have served a target group that cannot “re-pay” you except to love you as you press on. You are an astonishing role model and I pray you will have the health and safety to press on as you make so many personal sacrifices to continue your vision quest.

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  2. TAPATI GUPTA
    Nov 09, 2013 @ 23:01:14

    You are such and extraordinary woman Michelle .God co existed with you .. I always wished it was my address too . But i missed the bus .. Just want you to know that i do pray relentlessly .. Tuni s death devastated me .

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  3. Amy Buck
    Nov 10, 2013 @ 02:07:25

    You have wisdom that comes with all your life experiences. Thank you for sharing just part of your journey. It helps those of us who are figuring out our own journeys

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  4. Greg Ferrer
    Nov 10, 2013 @ 08:37:30

    Michele. You continue to amaze and inspire me. Thank for sharing your thoughts and experience and keep up the good work.

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  5. arundebnath
    Nov 10, 2013 @ 12:52:19

    Michelle, I can’t write so eloquently as you do, so I can’t express my thoughts appropriately like the those migrating flock of birds in the sky. The more I read part of your life story the more my mental head bowing towards your feet. What you’ve achieved in your love for the unfortunates [specially] in India is unique and envious. I also wonder how can a scientist and philanthropist in you still talk to God to openly as do, I wonder!! Hope and pray your God fulfills your remaining aspirations. With love on this cold and damp autumn morning in London. Arun

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  6. Dr. Michelle Harrison
    Nov 10, 2013 @ 18:14:57

    Thank you everyone for your kind words. This is just how I am, and sometimes it’s been difficult because not many people could understand me, while to me, I was pretty simple. My God doesn’t fill aspirations. It’s different. My God offers assignments which I can accept or not. I make no promises ever to succeed, but I can promise not to stop trying. I turn to my God more and more as I realize that I have never been scolded by God. I’ve never been humiliated by God. I don’t think I’ve ever disappointed my God. Even when I cannot succeed, I still get credit for trying. Since I cannot really say that of people, then this being must be a God. It’s pretty simple. And my God enjoys my sense of humor, so that is a big plus.

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  7. David Alman
    Nov 10, 2013 @ 20:55:21

    Dear Michelle,

    If there’s a universal lamentation by the orphans of the world, it is surely, ‘God, why hast thou forsaken us?’ A good God is humbled by the lament and feels a pang of guilt. Michelle steps forward to set an example for God.

    If Michelle’s mother, Emily, was still with us, she would have endowed this statement with beauty.

    David Alman, Michelle’s father.

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    • Dr. Michelle Harrison
      Nov 10, 2013 @ 21:21:50

      Thanks Dad, Well, my God isn’t all powerful. My God just does battle against Evil. I really couldn’t believe in an all powerful God. In today’s world we don’t like to name Evil, but it is here. Orphans suffer from the evil around them, the evil of greed, of indifference…. Hope that helps!

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  8. Dipak Basu
    Nov 11, 2013 @ 11:47:28

    Michelle, your story is truly humbling. No matter what skeptics say, God does work in wondrous ways, like sending people like you to the earth to do His work. If we couldn’t believe that, lots of things would remain unexplained. I open the news channels and newspapers every day with some trepidation, because it appears that events unfold every day just to wrest our faith away, our faith in the goodness that still exists in the world. Then along comes your mail, with stories about your girls and yourself, and the world doesn’t seem to go awry any more. Thank you for this regular dose of restoratives; otherwise we would be lost.

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  9. Armelle
    Dec 01, 2013 @ 04:53:40

    Michelle, ma belle, these are words………… You are wonderful…

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  10. Denise du Toit
    Dec 19, 2013 @ 03:07:23

    What a gripping story … I couldn’t put my iPad down. Thank you sincerely.

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  11. Abhimanyu
    Jul 03, 2015 @ 22:14:39

    I always thought that women who are victim of rape and cancer are silent forever. Praying for life’s end. But drastically changed my views. From now on when pray in morning I will pray for you too. Wish you all success joys and all the more……Amen

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    • Dr. Michelle Harrison
      Jul 03, 2015 @ 22:26:34

      Thank you. When I was raped, all I wanted was to see the sun come up again, to be alive another day. When I had cancer I accepted I might well die, but I kept thinking of all the work that was still left to do. I’m a strong woman, so I MUST talk about these things because there are people afraid to, and maybe I can help them feel good about being alive.

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