Circles of Compassion: Dr. Kinari Webb, Yale School of Medicine Commencement
This week the Commencement Archive features Dr. Kinari Webb’s speech titled “Circles of Compassion.” She delivered the keynote address at the 2017 Yale School of Medicine Commencement.
Kinari Webb, M.D. is the founder of Health In Harmony, an organization that establishes links between the health of humans, ecosystems, and the planet in order to solve problems of poverty, poor health, and environmental destruction. During a life-changing experience in Indonesia studying orangutans, Dr. Webb encountered not only a beautiful and threatened natural environment, but also the dire health needs of the people surrounding the National Park. After her experience in Indonesia, Dr. Webb decided to become a physician and return to Indonesia to work together with local communities to improve their health and preserve their natural environment.
After graduating from Yale University School of Medicine with honors, Dr. Webb completed her residency in Family Medicine at Contra Costa Regional Medical Center in Martinez, California. Dr. Webb founded Health In Harmony in 2005 to support the combined human and environmental work that she planned in Indonesia. After a year of traveling around Indonesia looking for the best site for this program, Dr. Webb co-founded the ASRI program in West Kalimantan Indonesia with Hotlin Ompusunggu and Antonia Gorog. Dr. Webb currently splits her time between Indonesia and the U.S.
Dr. Webb did not take the typical path towards a career in medicine. She went—as she simply puts it—“against the grain.” Despite excelling as a top student at a top-tier medical school, she was drawn back to Indonesia, where she previously studied orangutans as an undergraduate. This time, however, she returned with a much greater vision: using medical approaches to improve the health of humans and the planet.
Dr. Webb argues that our medical knowledge base and clinical skills are applicable to all species:
“I first came to know just how profoundly lucky I was during the year that I spent deep in the rain forest of Borneo when I was 21. I discovered there that people were often forced to cut down rain forest trees in order to pay for health care. I found myself feeling angry and deeply sad that such an injustice was occurring in the world. After residency I founded a non-profit called Health In Harmony and I have spent the last twelve years working on this issue. You may not have thought of your stethoscope as a tool to help heal the lungs of the earth – otherwise known as the rain forest - but it turns out it can be.
Your medical skills have all kinds of unexpected powers and I want to argue that we actually all need to become planet doctors. We are at an unprecedented time in the 4.6 billion year history of the planet: this is the time when a species that actually has the capacity to understand what it is doing is dramatically altering life on earth. And the health of our planet is the greatest threat to your patients’ health that they are likely to face over your career. Without a stable climate, enough drinkable water, food to eat, and healthy air you will have a very hard time keeping your patients well.”
Before I finished reading Dr. Webb’s speech, I found myself on her organization’s website, out of sheer curiosity. Health In Harmony is unique because of its dual efforts to promote environmental and healthcare reform in rural, impoverished communities across the globe. From training organic farmers to establishing tuberculosis treatment programs, the organization substantiates the role of “planet doctors”, one of whom Dr. Webb considers herself.
As Dr. Webb continues in her speech, she discusses the steps necessary to further a career as a physician, which she refers to as “Circles of Compassion.” The first circle emphasizes self-care. Regardless of the direction a career takes you, Dr. Webb argues that you are the most important patient.
“The first circle is caring for yourself. Most of you are about to go into indentured servitude, so this isn’t going to be easy. I remember massive sleep deprivation, feeling pushed beyond the limits of my skills, terrified I’d make a mistake, and being right in the middle of profoundly traumatic experiences. I encourage you to prioritize taking time to soothe and care for your body and soul even in the midst of all that. In my own journey of personal and spiritual growth, I have found help in faith communities, meditation, time with loved ones, therapy, and maybe most especially, being in nature. There might be nothing better for healing the soul.”
Dr. Webb’s next circle of compassion underscores the care we provide to patients.
“As a doctor, the second circle of compassion beyond you and your family is caring for your patients – both their physical well-being and their capacity to be their fullest selves. In Borneo, when we hire medical staff, we are looking for people who know they don’t know everything, who will be life-long learners, and most especially we want providers who will care for their patients as though they were their own family.”
Dr. Webb leaves the audience with the following concluding remarks:
“I wish to leave you with three key points:
First, don’t be afraid to take the road less traveled – or as my classmate Margaret Bourdeaux used to say: the deer path less traveled. The expectation superhighway is hard to resist but if you can see it all laid out in front of you, it likely isn’t your path. And this earth needs all of us to do whatever we are most passionate about – even if your deer path leads you to beautiful North Dakota.
Second, compassion matters. It starts with you, it spreads to those around you, and then to the whole planet.
Third, I encourage you to ask yourself: “Am I willing to be one of the sacred planetary healers that the earth so greatly needs?”
Congratulations again on this amazing accomplishment. May you go forth and heal!”