A Good Citizen

What makes you feel like a good citizen? Is it giving blood? Coaching your kid’s team? Volunteering at a school or shelter? Church work? Voting? Recycling? What is it that makes you feel part and parcel of the wide, wide world around us?
I asked this question of myself recently. As a doctor, quite naturally I thought of helping people. I am a big fan of the “smallest things make the biggest difference:” opening doors for others and helping the elderly cross the street. But what struck the most resonant chord with me was my commitment to the little free clinic that could right here in San Francisco.

It Stole My Heart

The full story behind my devotion to Clinic by the Bay is being published this week in San Francisco Medicine magazine. It’s funny how such large commitments begin so innocently.
It was during a busy cystoscopy clinic at the Veterans Affairs Hospital. Vets in half buttoned medical gowns were meandering all around. And there was Janet Reilly, oblivious yet focused: “Hi, Paul… I really need you to help me get medical professionals, especially retired ones, to volunteer in a free clinic.”
The wall went up. How could I possibly add any more to my schedule? My days at UCSF were chock full of teaching, research, grants, clinics, committees and travel. And then there was the young family. As an academic surgeon, I was spinning at tortuously high rpm, barely holding things together and here was yet another demand on my time.
But her dream was clear. She wanted to start a volunteer-powered, free clinic for the working uninsured in San Francisco, a population of about 63,000 at the time. I emailed her back later that same day and said “Count me in.”

Why I Said Yes

I have always been interested in medical volunteerism, but this was not exactly how I pictured myself getting involved as a professional. During training, I had volunteered in fantastically needy and faraway places like Dakar, Senegal and always imagined going back to the Third World again, when I could offer more expertise and wisdom. But this proposal was different: it awakened me to the opportunities to help in my own backyard. And that’s why her offer was so compelling to me. I didn’t have to fly 16 hours to another continent and leave my family for weeks at a time to help others.
Volunteering is really quite possible in smaller, less disruptive, doses and nearer to home, where I live. It’s really the same giving feeling, just spread evenly over everyday life.

Looking Back

Since I became involved during the Clinic’s planning stages 7 years ago, I have never looked back. As a Founding Board member and Chair of the Medical Advisory Board, my involvement has only deepened with time. Why did I become, and why do I remain, involved with Clinic by the Bay? Honestly, because it feels good to give back in an understated, everyday way. And every single one of the following matters deeply to me:

  • Providing the gift of better health
  • Giving back in your own backyard.
  • Helping fellow citizens in an incredibly fundamental way
  • Making the community a better place
  • Doing what you love to do
  • Coming home to your family with a big smile on your face

I know I keep repeating the words attributed to that dotty-old-cigar-smoking-Brit Winston Churchill, but they still ring true for me: “You make a living by what you get; you make a life by what you give.”