One recent morning I attended a health seminar. In the waiting room of a car service center in Gaithersburg. It was an impromptu kind of thing. Certainly not what I expected when I checked my car in for its 40,000 mile service, then settled down in the spacious lounge for the usual tedious wait. On the muted television CNN relayed the latest alarming news of the world but no-one paid attention. Vehicle anxiety and international crisis don’t mix well. We stared at our phones or worked on our laptops and avoided eye contact as strangers thrown together in public spaces tend to do. But we were about to be nudged out of our cocoons.
Suddenly the quiet was broken by a cheery “Happy New Year” greeting from a tall, elderly Indian man. Rather than sit down he remained standing at the end of our row of facing couches. “May I have 30 seconds of your time,” he asked. There was a stir of anxiety and people looked more pointedly at their devices so as to offer no encouragement. Was this some mentally disturbed beggar who had wandered in off the street? I was reminded of an uncomfortable experience this summer on the London underground when a beggar made his way through our carriage, the passengers a captive audience for his importuning. I peeked up from my phone to assess the situation and saw, to my surprise, that the man was standing perfectly erect in the yoga tree position. “I want to share with you a simple thing you can do for your health,” he announced. Naresh, as he introduced himself, explained that exercises to improve balance are the single best thing you can do to stay strong and healthy as you age. He told us he was a retired scientist from NIH and wanted to share his health advice as a way to pay back the country that had given him so much.
Now I happen to be enrolled in a yoga class “for people aged between 55 and 99” that is focused on exactly what Naresh recommended, improving strength and balance through simple exercises that almost everyone can do. And our instructor often makes us laugh by suggesting that we share what we learn in public. “When you’re in the grocery store,” she’ll say, “do you invite everyone in the check-out line to stand on one leg with you?” Or “at dinner will you invite your family to tighten their glutes with you?” Of course I’ve never done such a thing. But here at the car service center was a man doing just that, with no embarrassment whatsoever. He really won over his at first reluctant audience.
What happened next was even more extraordinary. As Naresh finished his demonstration a Chinese man sitting in the corner burst into loud applause. Then he handed Naresh his business card. Now as a librarian I know not to judge a book by its cover, and that applies to people too. People don’t dress in professional garb at the car service center. There are no white coats to distinguish a scientist or a doctor. At a casual glance the man in the corner could have been an Uber driver or the proprietor of a Chinese restaurant. But it turned out Yan-Gao was a doctor, an internationally renowned cancer specialist, and the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Cancer. Googling him afterward I found an impressive resume of prestigious appointments in the U.S. and China. Like Naresh he had worked for a time at NIH. When Yan-Gao mentioned this connection another man sitting opposite looked up and announced that he too had worked at NIH, for ten years. Kenny, who had the look of an American Everyman, was a medical anthropologist specializing in the health of indigenous peoples. Laughingly, I said that I too had a connection with NIH, though only as a guinea pig. I’m enrolled in ClinSeq, a study of genetics and health. What are the chances of four people out of about ten in that corner of the lounge having a connection to NIH?
At this point Naresh came over to sit with Yan-Gao and Kenny and they had what amounted to a seminar on their different disciplines, the role of alternative medicine, traditional Chinese medicine, preventive medicine, pain management, and more. It was fascinating to listen in. I had never heard of the specialty of medical anthropology, Kenny is a consultant on Native American health issues, so that was particularly interesting. And I picked up a recommendation for treating high blood sugar. Naresh said a slice of Indian bitter melon a day is as effective as medication, without the side effects. And he suggested anyone with pain issues should consult his Ebook Dr. Gupta’s Aquatic Yoga for Chronic Pain.
By now the ice was well and truly broken in our corner of the lounge. The woman sitting opposite and I began talking about, what else, our grandchildren. That would never have happened but for Naresh’s intervention in our morning. But eventually cars were ready to go. Naresh bade us farewell and with his departure we lapsed back into waiting room normalcy, but for polite goodbyes as we each in turn left.
Thinking about it afterwards I was reminded of E. M. Forster’s famous epigraph in Howards End, “only connect.” That morning at a car service center in Gaithersburg a motley group of Americans connected.