Abhilasha Rathi Is President of the Maheshwari Mahasabha of North America

It was the day of Diwali 2020 when Abhilasha Rathi made up her mind to helm the Maheshwari Mahasabha of North America (MMNA) for the next four years. She was pleasantly surprised when her name was proposed but mulled over it for a few days. While her husband Bharat and father-in-law Prabhulal Rathi were supportive and left the decision to her, it was her mother in law Draupadi Rathi and daughters Suhani and Shriya, who, she says, encouraged her to take up the challenge. A member of the New England chapter in Boston, this acceptance makes Abhilasha the second woman president in  MMNA history after Dr. Seema Rathi.

 

The Maheshwari community, whose origins are steeped in fascinating folklore, hail from Rajasthan. The organization was created in 1983 to preserve the community’s culture and traditions and to connect the Maheshwari community living in the US and Canada. Today, it boasts of 4000 plus members with ten Chapters spread across North America. One of the biggest industrialist families of India, the Birlas, belong to this community.

Born in Neemuch, Madhya Pradesh, Abhilasha was raised in Hyderabad, Telangana. After completing her graduation in Commerce, she married Bharat, a software professional, and moved to Boston in 1991. Determined to carve out a career, she enrolled for various courses but eventually gravitated towards Client Server

 

Programming. She is currently the Software Quality Engineering Manager at CVS Health where she oversees QA processes to ensure that the software meets technical, functional, and business requirements.

 

A significant portion of Abhilasha’s work involves leading teams and calls for “collaboration and management skills”, qualities she needs in spades in her new position. Rather than “managing,”  she prefers to use the term “serving” the team and enabling their success because when “your team is successful, you’re successful.” One of her favorite quotes by Henry Ford sums up her style of working:  “Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress and working together is success.”

 

Aside from her own inclination, Abhilasha traces her community service mindset, in part, to her parents Vijay Kumar and Urmila Taori. She recalls the constant stream of people who would drop in to discuss community matters with her father. In hindsight, she appreciates her mother’s unstinting support for her father’s passion for community work. In a fortunate coincidence, she found a similar sense of social commitment in her husband’s family. These firsthand lessons would be invaluable in forging her own path for community work.

 

As a teenager, she was actively engaged with the Maheshwari Samaj, Rajasthani Graduates Association and other organizations. After joining MMNA, she served in different roles but repeatedly emphasizes that a position or designation has never been important for her – making a difference is reward in itself.

 

Underlining the benefits of working in the community, she cites the instance of the 2016 International Maheshwari Rajasthani Convention. Although the New England Chapter signed up to be hosts of the convention, the logistics were daunting given that the number of volunteers were limited. As co-convenor, she encouraged members to enroll in the planning and execution and after an 18 month planning period, what crystallized, apart from a successful convention, was an extremely close knit group that is bonded to this day. Abhilasha was also at the frontlines of the 2020 virtual MMNA Utsav.

 

As general secretary for the past four years, Abhilasha worked with President Vikas Bhutada in setting up and maintaining various communication channels so Chapter leaders could collaborate with each other easily. She used her tech expertise to spearhead systematic procedures that helped everyone be on the same page and actively worked with the digital team. These experiences have helped her develop a personal rapport with members of the different chapters that will serve her well in the coming years.

 

Abhilasha is also involved in causes like the Walk for Hunger where she walked 20 miles, not once but several times, to raise funds for the program and the annual Cancer Walk to support friends who are cancer survivors. During COVID-19, she along with MMNA members, supported the cause of food donations to shelters. She has three key takeaways from all these years of volunteering: Be adaptable, persistent and celebrate small wins.

 

Her list of goals for her term as president include greater engagement with seniors, more participation by the Rajasthani Abroad Youth Samaj (RAYS)), celebrating festivals like Teej and Gangaur, strengthening current initiatives such as interest free loans to deserving students, matrimonial alliances, providing guidance to entrepreneurs, the women’s wing (Sakhi) and philanthropic efforts like food drives and walks to support causes. The new president also plans to roll out a Professional Networking Group to connect the youth of the community.

With so much on her plate, Abhilasha keeps herself fit with walking, yoga, and Zumba. Her soul is nourished by the Bhagwad Gita and she likes to unwind by donning the chef’s hat and bringing “creativity to her cooking.” Hawaii remains an all-time favorite holiday destination.

Alarming Rate Of Nation’s Opioid Deaths

On 5th July 2020, Ikonkar Manmohan Singh Sandhu, a young 23 year old boy, died from an opioid overdose in Michigan just months before he was to be married. He is by no means an isolated case in the Indian American community.

 

A small group of doctors are sounding the alarm on the nation’s opioid crisis. Dr. Arun Gupta is one of those who is urging health authorities to wake up to this catastrophe, which is ripping through communities with scant regard for race, gender, educational level or financial standing.

 

To be fair, before COVID-19 ravaged the country, the growing opioid addiction was giving the nation’s health officials sleepless nights. The pandemic put this issue on the back burner and while more Americans are dying from the virus, it can be just as deadly if left unchecked.

 

Opioid overdoses have killed more than 70,000 young people annually between the ages of

18-54 for the past five years. In 2011, the CDC reported that overdose deaths superseded auto accident deaths for the first time in 32 states This is now virtually true for all 50 states. The organization also reported that more than 700,000 young Americans have died between 1999- 2017 from poly drug overdose. That number is expected to be as high as one million by the end of 2020. The report further states that, “preventable disease & retroactive analysis show that most of these deaths were unintentional.”  Isolation, stress and the depression, that came in the wake of the pandemic is shooting cases through the roof. “Parents are burying their children and children are burying their parents,” says Dr. Gupta.

 

Dr. Gupta is quick to rid you of the rosy view that Indo American families have been unaffected by this affliction. It is a growing trend in the community, he says, largely due to parents’ unrealistic expectations for their children or the ABCD generation that faces conflicting cultures. What worsens it, is that many are either in denial or wary of seeking professional help for fear of being stigmatized or shunned. These are lives that could have easily been saved, he laments, much like the case of a distant relative who died because the family hesitated to reach out for help or were unaware of the problem.

 

A physician for 34 years, of which 14 are as a doctor of addiction management, Dr. Gupta has seen enough to be worried. He has been charting the surge in cases throughout the nation for the past decade and is seeing it played out at his doorstep – the rural region of Monroe, Michigan where he runs his private practice.

 

For 11 years, Dr Gupta was the local prison doctor where he saw the interplay of drugs and death up close and the ineffectiveness of the administration’s efforts to curb it. This pushed him to change tracks from being a general physician to addiction management. Rural communities, he observes, are more prone to opioid addiction than urban areas where the population is better educated and have higher paying jobs. The problem is compounded when there is family instability, lack of education, poverty,  physical, mental and sexual abuse in childhood, mental illness or addiction both in the family and the patient.

 

So why are addictive opioids prescribed in the first place and how do they hook us? About 25 years ago, pharma company Purdue, manufacturers of the painkiller Oxycodone, pushed the government to sanction prescribing painkillers for non-cancer related pain. The American Pain Society also classified pain as the fifth vital sign after blood pressure, pulse, temperature, and weight. Statistically, 40% of the country’s population is in chronic pain and many require pain medication to carry out their daily activities or even go in to work.

 

Addiction starts innocuously enough with a prescription for a painkiller to treat post-surgery or chronic pain as in instances of back pain. Consuming these painkillers diminishes the pain but also brings on a euphoric feeling as it raises dopamine – the brain’s pleasure hormone. Celebrities like Michael Jackson were known to use them before a performance, a term referred to as, “spotlight euphoria.” Additionally, it changes the perception of reality for those dealing with psychological issues such as an inferiority complex or anxiety,  these people now start “liking themselves and feeling good.” This altered reality quickly spirals into an emotional and social need followed by dependence and cravings for the painkiller.

 

The signs of addiction are evident in drastic mood changes, lethargy or impaired decision-making, among others. Discontinuing the painkillers could lead to a host of withdrawal symptoms such as chills, tremors, body aches, bone pain, vomiting, diarrhea or irregular respiration. However, Dr. Gupta clarifies that not everyone gets addicted to painkillers and the risk of  addiction is only about 10%.

 

Soon, Oxycodone grew so popular that it began to have, “street value.” When prescriptions ran out, users turned to the streets where it could be obtained illegally. Hustlers began faking health issues to procure and sell these painkillers giving rise to the term “pill-mill.” The cost of one milligram of Oxycontin is one dollar so someone using 1000mg was spending $1000 a day. While insurance took care of legitimate prescriptions, those who were addicted were shelling out their own money. This, of course, was done in connivance with “some doctors who played the game.” Dr. Gupta estimates that about 1000 doctors have been apprehended so far for violating this practice and have “tarnished the image of doctors.”

 

There is an obvious connection between mental disorders and addictive disorders and its consequences can sometimes be life threatening. Doctors, however, are required by law to treat pain with painkillers even if there is a sense/awareness that this medication could become addictive to the patient. On the other hand, if doctors practice caution in prescribing pain medication, they risk a bad review on their practice, something every doctor understandably wants to avoid.

 

In 1999, the Center for Disease Control went on record for the first time and shared its report of 4000 young Americans who died from drugs. The government scrutinized the problem and rolled out the Drug Addiction Treatment Act of 2000. For the first time, this law allowed practicing doctors to learn and treat addiction with an FDA approved drug. The law also stipulated that any practicing doctor could complete an addiction program and receive a X DEA license which would allow them to treat 30 patients per month for a year. If the doctor’s records are found in order, they could treat 100 patients per month. Past President Barack Obama signed a law that would allow some doctors with specific credentials to treat 275 patients a month. This number was controlled to prevent its misuse but sometimes the best-intentioned laws have unintended consequences.

 

This one did.

 

Only 4300 doctors in the US can treat 275 patients a month and Dr. Gupta is one of them. It’s a drop in the ocean for the estimated 20-40 million people who need help overcoming their addiction. There are more than 100,000 healthcare providers in the country that include doctors, nurses and physician assistants who have the necessary X- DEA credentials  to treat opioid use disorders. But less than 20,000 are actively involved in dealing with the growing opioid epidemic in the country. This lack of access to a healthcare provider aggravates the problem leading to more deaths than recoveries. Meanwhile, the pandemic has not made things easier. There is excessive stress and limited counselling due to the shutdowns and prescriptions cannot be given on the phone without the necessary drug testing. This explains the rise in overdose deaths and addiction cases in the past nine months.

 

Apart from flawed policy, the American Society of Addiction states that every doctor who graduates from medical school is required to study addiction management. There are 179 medical schools and approximately 9000 residency programs in the country and not one of them teaches this course.  Moreover, addiction management is not considered on par with other areas of medical specialization and neither do insurance companies view addiction like other chronic diseases such as blood pressure or diabetes.

 

In 2002, a drug Buprenorphine was approved for addiction treatment and ten years later another drug Zubsolv made it to treatment plans. These drugs block the opioid receptors in the brain and reduce a person’s craving for the painkiller. Another ingredient in the drug, naloxone, reverses the effects of opioids. Together, they prevent withdrawal symptoms and deter the abuser from snorting or injecting it. Dr. Gupta pairs medication with counselling, and non-addictive medication in cases of insomnia or anxiety. Recovery takes anywhere from six weeks to six months depending on the severity of the addiction, but the struggle to remain clean continues for the rest of their lives.

 

With death rates from opioid misuse surging, more than 500 laws were enacted in the last 10 years against doctors, pill mills and pharmaceutical companies to curb the problem but this has only exacerbated the issue. Addicts are now forced to go to the streets instead of visiting a doctor for treatment. Dr. Gupta notes that national autopsy results over the last 5 years consistently show that fentanyl, heroin and cocaine are the first three drugs in more than 55% of the people with drug overdose deaths as opposed to prescription medication.

 

Over the past few years, Dr. Gupta has presented more than 150 talks to schools, doctors, healthcare systems and social organizations like Rotary clubs and the Kiwanis Club to highlight the gravity of the problem and his message that addiction can be cured. He is talking to elected officials to leverage their influence and galvanize the government to rethink the limit of patients and allow greater access to people who want to overcome their addiction. 

 

Addiction, he warns, has become synonymous with a death sentence in this country.

 

 

(Picture Courtesy: Times Herald)