Dr. Vivek Murthy is now the highest-ranking Indian-American in the Obama Administration
By Geeta Goindi
Fort Myer, Virginia, April 22, 2015 – Vice President Joe Biden administered the Oath of Office to Dr. Vivek Murthy who was sworn-in as the nineteenth Surgeon General of the United States at an awe-inspiring ceremony held at Conmy Hall on the Fort Myer military base.
Surrounded by his family — father Dr. Narasimha Murthy, mother Mrs. Maithreya Murthy, sister Rashmi Murthy, fiancee Dr. Alice Chen, with his grandmother and uncle looking on, Dr. Vivek Murthy took the oath on the holy Bhagavad Gita.
At 37, he is the youngest ever in charge of the nation’s health and the highest-ranking Indian-American in the Obama administration.
“He is eminently qualified for the job”, Vice President Biden declared in his remarks, describing Dr. Murthy’s family as “incredible”, emphasizing the presence of his grandmother at the ceremonial swearing-in of America’s top doctor. “Dr. Murthy and the entire Murthy family, what a group of under-achievers”, he said, evoking laughter from the audience. “What an incredible family”, he underscored, to sustained applause.
The Vice President took a jab at the Senate for the delay in confirming the Surgeon General. Murthy’s nomination was stalled in the Senate for over a year by Republicans and some Democrats, primarily because he supports sensible gun control.
“Thankfully, the people that held up the nomination don’t have to wait that long for a doctor’s appointment”, quipped the Vice President.
About Murthy, he pointed out that “he shares the premise on which the President and I have staked so much time in office, that healthcare is a right, not a privilege in America”.
Noting that former American Surgeon Generals have focused on issues such as the dangers of smoking, devastation of HIV/AIDS, scourge of violence against women, Biden said, “Dr. Murthy is cut from the same cloth. He plans to use the bully pulpit to combat childhood obesity, to improve mental health-care, to strengthen anti-tobacco efforts. Based on his past, he is not afraid of hard work. We have the right person with the right background!”
It is noteworthy that as the US Surgeon General, Murthy carries the rank of Vice Admiral. And as America’s top doctor, he leads the uniformed Commissioned Corps Officers of the US Public Health Service — a team of 6,700 men and women in 800 locations around the world. “Dr. Murthy is absolutely committed to lead the Commissioned Corps Officers”, Vice President Biden said.
Sylvia Burwell, Secretary of Health and Human Services, told the gathering that one of her “top priorities has been to build the strongest team possible with the very best talent” and that she was “very excited” when President Obama nominated Dr. Vivek Murthy as the nation’s nineteenth Surgeon General.
She dwelt on his impeccable qualifications, knowledge and experience, noting that “he brings a love of data and science-based policies to this position. He is a visionary”, she said, and in this regard mentioned that he co-founded VISIONS, an HIV/AIDS education program in India and the US, with his sister, and Swasthya (health and well-being) in rural India to train women to be health providers and educators. “And that’s just before he graduated from college”, she quipped.
“He is the son of immigrants”, Secretary Burwell noted. “I had a chance to meet his family and I was inspired by their story and their passion. Vivek is also the first American of Indian descent to step into this position”, she said, to much applause.
Addressing the gathering, Murthy said, “To have the opportunity to serve as Surgeon General is an extraordinary honor and a profound responsibility, and I want to thank President Obama for entrusting me with the stewardship of this office”. He admitted, “even after being nominated for this job by a President I deeply admire, I almost didn’t get to be your Surgeon General. Had it not been for so many of you in this room, and thousands of dedicated individuals that I have never even met, I would not be standing here. We got here by standing on principle”, he told an appreciative audience.
In an expansive policy speech, at his eloquent best, America’s top doctor spoke of a whole range of issues impacting the nation’s health including: the dangers of smoking, of tobacco; the need to treat “mental health as part and parcel of overall health”; speaking out against violence, particularly “the scourge of physical and sexual violence against women that plagues too many of our communities”; fighting “back against climate change which poses a global threat to public health”; and the importance of vaccinations.
Throughout his address, Murthy stressed on the imperativeness of treating health as a shared responsibility and tackling challenges with all members of society “to build the great American community”. He told the gathering, “What I have learned over the past 20 years is that being a healer isn’t just about diagnoses and treatments. It’s also about building relationships”.
In “the great American community”, he envisioned colleges as “models for healthy living” with 100 percent tobacco-free campuses, healthy food options and adequate physical activity.
On mental health, Murthy made it clear, “We must cast aside the unacceptable stigma and barriers to access that keep too many people from getting the help they need”. He pledged to “call upon faith and civic leaders to use the power of their pulpits to save lives while saving souls, by igniting a conversation around mental health – just as President Obama and Vice President Biden have done. Together, we will bring mental illness out of the shadows”, he vowed.
Statistics are startling, to say the least! Murthy pointed out, “Today, we face a rising tide of diabetes, heart disease and cancer. We will lose nearly half a million lives this year to tobacco-related disease. Forty-two million people in our country struggle with mental illness. Heroin and prescription drug abuse ravage towns across America, and vaccine-preventable diseases we thought we had contained have come back with a vengeance because of fear and misinformation”.
Furthermore, health in America has a direct co-relation with wealth. “Being poor – which affects one in five children – is too great a factor in determining who is healthy and who is not”, he noted.
“That is unacceptable”, he said. “These realities hurt all of us. They threaten our economy, our educational system, the productivity of our workers and even our national security. They bend the arc of the moral universe away from justice. To put it simply: health equity is a civil rights issue”.
As the nation’s Surgeon General, he pledged to combat misinformation with clear communication, mentioning e-cigarettes, the latest diet fad, marijuana, and measles in this regard. “We will work to move from a culture of treatment to one of prevention”, he said, which means “keeping the vulnerable from getting sick in the first place”.
Murthy stressed on the importance of changing “entrenched behaviors”, noting that in the past “it was completely normal to smoke on a plane, in a restaurant or at the office. But, we are moving past those Mad Men days because we, as a people, confronted the harms caused by tobacco”, he said.
For all his brilliance, Murthy has a humility which is endearing. He told the audience, “By any reasonable measure, I shouldn’t be standing here. My family was never supposed to have left our ancestral village. My father is the son of a farmer in rural India. He was supposed to have been a farmer, as was I. But for my grandfather’s insistence that his son get an education, even if that meant going into debt, we might have never left that village to go out in the world and, as my grandfather also insisted, start fixing what needed fixing”.
Looking around the spacious hall, he said, “If my improbably journey to this podium demonstrates anything, it’s that it took family and friends, teachers and coaches, employers and advocates, community leaders and elected officials to get us to this place”.
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