20 Years of Serve-Learn-Lead: Sachin Shah

On January 26, 2001, the Gujarat Earthquake struck — an enormous tragedy for the state and for India. With the aid of allies, Gujarat would be eventually rebuilt, yet the earthquake had lasting effects on education, health, migration, and livelihoods. It was in these aid efforts that Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and United States President Bill Clinton joined forces in mobilizing the Indian diaspora in the US to form the American India Foundation (AIF) in the spring of 2001, with a mission of strengthening the US-India bridge to make a tangible difference on the ground in India.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, AIF launched the AIF Service Corps Fellowship program to offer young people the opportunity to support local communities in post-disaster rebuilding, and to build strong ties between civil society in both countries to foster mutual understanding and long-term collaboration. During the summer of 2001, the inaugural class of Fellows consisted of twenty-one talented individuals who would serve with AIF and its partner organizations in Gujarat and other states that migrants had sought refuge in. These twenty-one pioneers were driven by the spirit of service and their desire to strengthen change in India after an unprecedented disaster. Now, twenty years later, we look back on that first cohort of Fellows — where they’ve been, what they’re doing, and how their time with AIF has stuck with them since.

Sachin’s journey in the development field began during his college years, where he had a growing interest in the healthcare sector and wanted to find ways to help people through medicine. One of his formative experiences came during his time as part of the AIF Service Corps in 2001 when he was part of AIF’s inaugural cohort that went to India to provide relief help in the aftermath of the Gujarat Earthquake. During his time serving in India, Sachin realized his passion for healthcare and the joy he got from interacting with kids in particular. Consequently, he went on to become a board-certified doctor in pediatrics and internal medicine and has been working as faculty at University of Chicago (UChicago) Medicine since 2010. He is currently a primary care physician who sees both adult and pediatric patients in his clinic and runs UChicago Medicine’s clinical informatics program, where he helps lead important work in population health, telemedicine, data analytics, patient engagement, and predictive modeling. He also regularly works at the hospital doing inpatient work and spends much of his clinical time simultaneously teaching medical students and residents.

Looking back on his development career, Sachin often reflects on his memories from his time with the AIF Fellowship, which he remembers quite fondly. He had just graduated college from Princeton in the summer of 2001 and had become interested in development work in his final two years of college. In the summer of his final year at college, he had worked with an NGO called Saath that worked in the slums of Ahmedabad. To get the position, he had connected with the founder of the organization, Rajendra Joshi, who promptly took Sachin in, mentored him, and let him even stay with him at his house during the summer. That initial experience made Sachin realize how one small but powerful model could work to help a community and deepened his interest in the development space. Eventually, with Sachin’s help, Saath became a partner organization with AIF, a mutually beneficial connection that lasted years.

When the Gujarat earthquake happened in January, Sachin wanted to help. As AIF was developed in response to the earthquake, he saw an opportunity. He applied, got selected, and the day after he graduated from college, drove home with all his belongings to his parent’s house in Michigan and then flew to the Bay Area for training that same day. He remembers the cohort was filled with like-minded people who were all interested in helping people and anointed themselves “Seva Warriors”.

Sachin with members from his cohort in Rajkot, Gujarat, about 2 hours from the village they worked in, with one of the host families they would spend the occasional weekend with — other AIF alums pictured include Lucas Dreier (in white with the hose), Chaitali Thakar (in yellow), and Shayna Parekh (in gray with the bucket on her head).

They were deployed to different sites, mostly around Gujarat. Four Fellows, including Sachin, were assigned to the village of Nana Desara, near Rajkot. The village had been completely leveled by the earthquake. The children there had not gone to school for months, as their school building had been destroyed. Moreover, as a result of roads getting destroyed and access points being blocked, teachers were not coming regularly. Recognizing the primary need, the role of the Fellows became teaching the children. Sachin vividly remembers his initial interactions with the kids, how excited they were to have the Fellows there, and how easy it was to connect with them.

Collage of four photos. Upper left: Sachin and a group of village boys gathering around a tree outside. Upper right: Sachin and his co-Fellow standing with a group of boys and farm animals. Lower left: Sachin with a group of women in saris and a man holding a child in his arms, all smiling for the camera. Lower right: house with the back wall crumbled in.
Sachin with the AIF’s Service Corps in 2001. Upper left: The entrance to the village of Nana Dehsara, where all the children would gather to meet Sachin and the other fellows each morning. Upper right: Sachin and Lucas with some of the village children. Lower left: Sachin, Lucas, Shayna, and Chaitali with a young  Nana Dehsera family. Lower right: The earthquake damaged the school building.

The Fellows set up a tent and started teaching some basic lessons in English, Mathematics and Science for the different age groups. During their time, they met a lot of families, as the kids would invite them to their homes. The Fellows would hear the stories of the village, and get to know more about the community and how the earthquake had impacted each individual and their families. Once or twice a week, there was also a satsung where the villagers would come together in the evening and sing songs together. This helped the Fellows feel as though they were part of a community. The village lifestyle helped Sachin grow and gain an understanding of what fieldwork entailed at the grassroots level.

The Fellows tried their best to find resources and address the needs of the village. Even for small things such as securing a clean drinking water supply, they tried to help. The village faced many challenges, including severely damaged infrastructure, inadequate access to roads and transportation networks, and minimal functional healthcare and education facilities amongst others. At points, Sachin remembers it was frustrating working to resolve these problems due to bureaucratic inefficiencies and roadblocks. As such the Fellows tried to find immediate ways of helping people and providing relief.

Recalling particular moments from his time in Gujarat, Sachin remembers how after teaching in the day, the Fellows would often play with the kids. There was a group of about 70-80 kids, and they would make a large circle with the Fellows in the middle leading games. They would often play cricket as well. Sachin vividly remembers once being in the middle of a circle of over 70 children teaching them how to do the hokey pokey.

Looking back, Sachin talks about how the Fellowship helped him decide his career path. Coming into the development field he was still uncertain about his specific career trajectory. As he recounted, “I realized firstly that it was important to come to development work with a skill set, coming in with a set of expertise or an area of focus.” Secondly, his experience taught him that if he could develop his medical expertise as a clinician, he would be able to have a greater impact. Recounting his time with the Service Corps he says, “living with the children had an indelible impact and shapes even how I treat my patients and even my own children today. It taught me about how to deal with adversity and made me very cognizant of my privilege. I knew that if I did this for the 3-4 months, and enjoyed it, I would know whether the field was for me. Later on, when I wanted to decide on which part of medicine I wanted to go into, I chose to do internal medicine and pediatrics because I wanted to spend part of my career in settings like India and other resource limited settings where I could use my clinical skillset to help nearly anyone I encountered, at least in some way.”

After coming back from the Fellowship, Sachin worked in the Bay Area doing bioethics research at Stanford for about a year, while he applied to medical school. He started medical school in 2002 and the summer after his first year decided to go to Bihar and work with Veerayatan, an NGO he had learned about during his time in the AIF Service Corps from the work they were doing in Bhuj. “They had an eye and polio hospital in Bihar where I worked for 2 months, and then I traveled through much of India by second and third class train for the last 5-6 weeks to explore many of the places I had always longed to see.” At the very end of medical school, when he had more clinical confidence and some autonomy, he went to Mumbai and worked with The Akanksha Foundation, an NGO providing education to the urban underprivileged of Mumbai. He spent two months there, again mostly with children, and would go to their sites and conduct medical examinations for every child at each center he would visit. He remembers how “working in these rural and urban settings, and connecting with kids again crystallized my desire to go into pediatrics.”

Sachin standing with his co-worker in an office, both wearing masks and glasses. A stethoscope casually wrapped around Sachin's neck.
Sachin with a colleague, working in his primary care practice at the University of Chicago.

Sachin did his residency training in a combined Internal Medicine and Pediatrics (Med-Peds) program in Rochester, New York. While his first two years were very busy, in his third year he found time to travel to Africa to work at a pediatric AIDS clinic in Lesotho, a small nation located within the borders of South Africa. He was much more confident then and took care of adults and kids with HIV that were very sick, which was very rewarding work. The clinic did not have a lot of infrastructure, so the medical teams had to do a lot of problem-solving and find innovative solutions to provide the care required. At the beginning of his final year of residency, Sachin traveled to Ladakh for 2 months, running medical camps. The passes into the Zanskar valley high in the Himalayas are passable for only 2-3 months each year, and he led a group of 29 medical students and 7 other resident physicians, and a dentist, on a trip that involved trekking and running medical camps in remote villages in an effort to provide some level of medical care to this otherwise isolated group. Every day Sachin and his colleagues would set up tents and treat local villagers, carrying all of their equipment on their backs and 2 on 2 horses. He also went to Haiti in March of 2010, for the last 2 weeks of vacation at the end of his residency. There had been a massive earthquake in January 2010, and Sachin helped staff a field hospital in Port-Au-Prince set up by Project Medishare out of the University of Miami. He staffed a Pediatric ICU unit, the ER, and helped care for adults and children from around Haiti with severe trauma from the earthquake. These experiences all helped Sachin gain confidence in his clinical and operational skills and taught him how to problem solve in some of the most resource-strapped settings in the world.

His favorite part of all these experiences, and of clinical medicine overall, is the privilege that comes with simply having a stethoscope around your neck: people trust you and believe in you instantly. This made Sachin want to be a primary care physician, and he was drawn to the South Side of Chicago where he felt he could continue to make an impact in another resource-strapped setting.

Thinking of his relationship with AIF right now, Sachin recognizes how AIF continues to serve as a way to direct resources to places in India they are most needed. His connection to AIF is very much centered on how AIF steps up during times of crisis, and he acknowledges the need for a group of individuals that have access to human and monetary capital and deploy it to underserved regions. While earlier he could only contribute his medical skills, he is glad to now have the opportunity to contribute different ways – financially, through his network, and by providing expertise.

His advice for the incoming Fellows is “to go into their field with energy. Find ways to connect with the people that you meet. This goes for the colleagues you are going with, and with the communities, you are working in. There is nothing more impactful than the connections you make, the cups of tea that you share, and the conversations you have. It is an opportunity to serve and recognize the privilege of being able to do so.”

On the topic of serving, Sachin shared his experience of being a doctor on the frontlines during a global pandemic. With the COVID-19 pandemic, this last year has been full of uncertainty for Sachin, and one where has taken on several roles. He has been working on the frontlines since the early days, seeing his patients in clinic, working in the hospital with scores of COVID positive patients on the COVID unit, helping stand up and support the curbside COVID testing clinic, developing UChicago’s telehealth program, and ultimately helping to design and lead the COVID vaccine program.

In medicine, there is always a lot at stake. Medical professionals faced a lot of complicated questions related to how dangerous the virus was but also had to navigate difficult personal decisions about how to protect themselves and keep their families safe while fulfilling their professional responsibilities. New information and constant recalculations around risk had to be incorporated on a daily basis, leading to constant adaptation. While the last year has been demanding, he is grateful to have had the privilege to serve in this time of need.

Speaking of his life outside of work, Sachin loves to spend time with his family. He is a father to three young kids: a 7-year old son, a 6-year old daughter, and a 3-year old son. His wife is also a physician, and works in the Chicago area at a Veterans Affairs Hospital. He spends most of his time outside of work with family, and the pandemic reinforced these priorities. His oldest son is a sports fanatic, and they play baseball, football, and hockey together, always spending time outdoors. His daughter is energetic, creative, and protective of him, always at his side. His younger son is loving, easy-going, has a lot to say. It is great fun for Sachin to watch them grow up and be present for this experience.

He still loves reading and tries to write as much as possible. Traveling remains a passion, and he loves to write particularly while traveling, as a way to chronicle his perspective on the new things he sees and experiences. He also talks about how “medicine gives an intimate look into people’s lives, and a chance to understand them in a way that I don’t think I would get in any other profession.” When it is time to travel again, which for his family would be when all his kids are vaccinated, he is excited to start showing them the world through his and his wife’s eyes (who is also very well-traveled and has similar interests). In February 2019, his family had traveled to India for a wedding of a cousin, and he looks forward to traveling more and introducing his kids to the world.

Upper left: Sachin and his wife during a walk outdoors. Upper right: Sachin, his wife and three children posing for a selfie, with trees in the background. Lower left: Sachin's three children wearing identical white print shirts and red shorts. Lower right: Sachin, his wife and their three children resting against a railing, river in the background.
Sachin with his wife and their three children. Bottom right: Sachin with his wife, Sonia, and their 3 children (from left to right, Sanam [7 years], Sajan [3 years], and Simrin [6 years]).

Devang Laddha is a second-year undergraduate student at the University of Chicago, where he studies Political Science and Economics. His main area of interest is international development. He's originally from Kolkata and very excited by the work AIF is doing, particularly through the Fellowship program and more recently with COVID-19 relief work. Being from India, he's passionate about learning from and helping people back home. During the summer of 2021, Devang worked as an intern for the AIF Fellowship Program through the University of Chicago's Jeff Metcalf Internship Program to support AIF's 20-year anniversary campaign.

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