What’s in it for me?

A dose of the spirit of service for its own sake is surely the critical need of the times. The reward can be blessings without compare…

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

This goes back to the late 1980s. Late one Sunday afternoon, a colleague of mine (who is no more) drove his neighbour, a big businessman (hereafter Mr B), to the hospital, admitted him and initiated the treatment for an injury to the foot. He called me and told me what he had done, saying I did not need to come down (I was on call) and could see the patient during my ward rounds the next day.

Nearly 7000 health professionals have lost their lives so far, and this is an underestimate. They died while trying to save others. Photo – media2.s-nbcnews.com

Which I did in the afternoon, after my morning consultation. After the medical part of the visit was over, I thought that this was perhaps an opportunity to seek some help for renovating the ward. I therefore approached the issue gently and made my request, and in answer to Mr B’s queries, said that for example, he could offer to paint the walls, or to have the curtains changed.

I can never forget his immediate reflexive response: ‘What do I get out of this?’ Stunned, I could only mumble, ‘You know, your name could be inscribed…’ He was in any case due to be discharged that day, and that was the first and the last I saw of him.

Fast forward to a few years later, in another hospital. Another businessman had offered to renovate the female orthopaedic ward, and the works were already under way. I had been operating on three-month old babies with harelips (born with lips that are split into two), and this required that the mother stay with her child, which meant in any of the available beds. This was not a convenient arrangement, nor proper from a surgical point of view.

Again, seizing the opportunity despite my previous negative experience, I made a request for a cubicle to be added to the planned changes through the foreman. The reply came the next day, in the affirmative. A few months later, the works were completed, mothers and their babies were henceforth more comfortable and the babies safer medically speaking.

Since the Covid-19 pandemic, tens of millions of doctors, nurses, laboratory scientists and technicians, attendants and other supporting health personnel have been working ceaselessly to care for Covid cases that have been admitted, which are usually the most severe ones demanding 24/7 attention and care. Especially in the case of nurses and doctors, who are in most direct contact with the ill patients, they have had to do long hours, often going beyond their normal working times.

There have been so many accounts of the hardships they have faced – other than the medical challenges of treating a disease that was still unraveling with umpteen complications, wearing masks and the space-suit like Personal Protective Equipments (PPEs) was onerous, but they bore with it. On top of that were the physical exhaustion, the emotional trauma of losing patients despite laying out a whole range of armamentarium and of having to stay away from their own families so as not to infect them. But that was not all: they faced loss of colleagues whom they had to look after in the very ICUs where they were working.

Worse, nearly 7000 health professionals have lost their lives so far, and this is an underestimate. They died while trying to save others. They never asked ‘What’s in it for me?’

It is true that some occupations such as medicine and teaching give more opportunities for selfless service and altruism, but that does not mean that these cannot be found in other fields of human activity. Simply doing an honest piece of work according to conditions agreed can itself be a beginning towards, if the occasion arises, going that extra mile without any expectation.

For many years, there has been much noise about ethical practice in various sectors. Several professions have codes of practice, which may not necessarily be legally binding but aim to set a moral compass. In the business, banking and financial world following the financial crisis of 2008-09 – which a long article that I recall reading in the American magazine Newsweek concluded was due to GREED – legislation was amended in an attempt to prevent the kind of deviousness that had led to the crisis (the Sarbane-Oxley law).

One of the enduring problems that democratic countries face is the issue of political financing, where, it seems the ruling paradigm is ‘What’s in it for me?’ That’s what has been unfolding in front of our eyes from all over the world, what with Panama papers, Wikileaks, etc. There is practically an endless stream of published material about the politics-business nexus, the occult labyrinthine networks of money deals that divert resources away from the needy and the poor, and yet there appears to be no resolution of this conundrum in view.

Which makes one wonder what keeps the world ticking somehow? It must be the hundreds of millions who go on toiling nevertheless, preferring to do their day’s work with sincerity and honesty, even if motivated only by the need to cater for their families. But there are as many millions of others who see a higher purpose in their calling, and view their efforts as the contribution they need to make so as to leave the world a better place for their children and the future generations.

The words of President John Kennedy, heard when I was a teenager in my first year of HSC, still resonate in me: ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country’. It is not too late for politicians of all hues to be inspired by this maxim, instead of running their countries by their venalities of which people have had enough. Instead of ‘What’s in it for me?’, like Mr B, perhaps they could be asking ‘What’s in it for my country and my fellow citizens?’

A dose of the spirit of service for its own sake is surely the critical need of the times. The reward can be blessings without compare…

* Published in print edition on 11 December 2020

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