Doctor Serves Others, From Einstein to Nepal
One in an ongoing series.
Reha Dharmaraj, MBBS, nourishes her soul by helping others in ways both big and small.
In 2015, Dr. Dharmaraj traveled to Nepal to build shelters and treat patients in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake. She volunteers at an animal shelter and plans to open a hospice for older dogs, with her husband, at her home someday. She’s deeply involved with a nonprofit organization that feeds 180 people every Sunday.
And in her work as research manager in the Emergency Department at Einstein Medical Center Philadelphia, she sometimes writes poems and leaves them on a colleague’s desk with a piece of chocolate – like the haiku she wrote for Serge Simpson, MD:
Saves lives and builds bikes.
Bagel making, bread making.
This unsung hero.
Dr. Dharmaraj is touched when she notices that her colleagues keep the poems. “We tend to underestimate the magnitude of our most simple and random acts of kindness,” she says.
“Spending time in the service of others was instilled in me by my parents as long as I can remember,” says Dr. Dharmaraj, who was raised and educated in India, where her father is a retired Army colonel and her brother is a commander in the Indian Navy.
Struggle With a Brain Tumor
Not even a serious bout with a brain tumor has tarnished her altruism.
In 2016, Dr. Dharmaraj began having headaches, nausea and vertigo. “I couldn’t get out of bed and walk to the bathroom – I’d fall down.” She was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor and had surgery in June of 2017.
She returned to Einstein four months later. “I did have some leg weakness afterwards, but I managed to get over it and I’m doing well now.”
When she was in Nepal, she helped build 45 shelters for villagers whose homes were on the verge of collapse – while the unstable ground was still rumbling. “There were tremors every day,” she says.
She and other volunteers traveled to a remote area that had no electricity and, in a raging downpour, treated patients under leaky tents, using headlamps for illumination.
“Going to Nepal was one of the most fulfilling experiences in my career,” she says. “It made me realize that I had chosen the right path when I became a doctor.”
Making the Most of ED Opportunity
Dr. Dharmaraj’s research is focused on maximizing the intervention for patients within the short window of time that they’re in the ED. For instance, her team, along with the Toxicology Division, obtained a grant to allow physicians to provide free Narcan to patients treated for overdose.
Other initiatives enable patients to get food stamps, or access to lawyers for housing insecurities. “We do research that addresses the socioeconomic insecurity and medical-legal needs of our patients,” she says. “Our focus is on the short duration of time they’re in the ED.”
Not everything Dr. Dharmaraj does is high-minded and altruistic, of course. “I play a lot of Dungeons and Dragons. It’s one of my favorite things to do,” she says of the fantasy role-playing game.
“I write a lot of poetry. I used to do a lot of kickboxing, which I temporarily stopped after surgery. I also learned comedy improv for the fun of it. And then I foster animals and have two dogs and a cat.”
Dr. Dharmaraj laughs about her “epic foster fail,” a dog named LuLu who was found in a dumpster with six of her puppies. Foster families are only supposed to care for animals until they’re adopted. But Dr. Dharmaraj and her husband adopted Lulu themselves. So even her “failures” involve helping save a creature.
Keeper of the Dream
In 2018, Dr. Dharmaraj won a Martin Luther King Keeper of the Dream Award, of which she felt undeserving. “When you hear Dr. King’s name, and you think about all the work he’s done, you can never feel that anything you do can live up to the change that he brought,” she says.
And that might be true, but Dr. Dharmaraj is certainly modeling the selflessness and purpose that he exemplified.
“If you act with humility and compassion, it nourishes your soul,” she says. “And at the end of the day, that’s what we’re all looking for.”