The road to commencement: Kavita Rajasekhar

“It’s more important to be worthy than respected,” Kavita Rajasekhar said, paraphrasing one of her favorite quotations. It’s one of many statements Rajasekhar, a fourth-year student in the College of Medicine, chooses to live by. She said her friends constantly tease her about her uncanny ability to find the perfect inspirational sound byte for every situation.

Rajasekhar said she was thrilled to be nominated and selected for the prestigious Leonard Tow Humanism in Medicine Award this year and hopes to live up to her peers’ faith in her abilities.

“It’s great to get an honor like this but more important to be doing the work it represents,” she said.

But few would doubt that she brings her unique brand of humanism and compassion to everything she does.

She believes in not only treating patients but looking at the community they live in and how they relate to it. For Rajasekhar, this idea of community is not limited to humans. She is also an advocate for animal rights, ecologically sustainable or “green” medicine and the promotion of social justice.

“It’s important for physicians to see the connections between all of these issues and health professions,” she said.

Green medicine deals with everything from serving patients safe, organically grown foods to the actual infrastructure of a hospital and the materials and cleaning supplies used. Social justice in medicine involves issues like environmental racism — when minority and low-income communities are exposed to greater amounts of pollution and toxic waste than more affluent areas.

“It’s becoming more a part of medical education, but I’d like to see it as a standard,” she said.

Her interest in this kind of preventive medicine was sparked by an article in National Geographic about malnourished children in Bangladesh. She was amazed that, with proper diet and treatment, their conditions improved drastically in a short period of time.

“I was excited you could do that with locally available foods,” she said. “That was the beginning of my interest in food and medicine.”

Rather than jumping into a residency program after graduation, she plans to go to India to complete a yearlong fellowship with Indicorps, a nonprofit organization devoted to fostering progress and development in India. Rajasekhar will be working on a project called Empower College Freshman, which helps promising students from rural areas adjust to a college environment and teaches them useful skills in community building and finding jobs.

“I really believe in the power of ‘breaks’ or just looking at things from a different angle,” she said. “I sort of wish we had that whole ‘gap year’ thing like the British do, for sure after college and before med school. I want to be the best doctor I can be, so this is part of that for me.”

In addition to the benefits of a change of pace, Rajasekhar said she hopes to develop a deeper connection to the country where her parents were born.

“From my parents I’ve always felt like my roots are in India, but this year will definitely be a time for me to develop my own roots as an Indian-American,” she said.

In addition to her medical studies, Rajasekhar is proud of her involvement in the Animal Activists of Alachua, helping spread awareness about issues like vegetarianism and the use of animals in the entertainment industry. She also teaches vegan cooking classes as part of the Shands Eastside Education Series.

“People are always asking, ‘Why are you being a doctor if you care about animals so much?’” she said. But she doesn’t understand why people find it so difficult to make the connection.

In answer, she quotes Mahatma Gandhi: “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”

“I really like this statement, “she said. “Humanism in medicine values respect, empathy, compassion towards patients and others. I feel that caring for animals in various ways — speaking out against forms of cruelty in factory farms, circuses, zoos, experimentation — essentially respecting their sentience, helps me stay consistent in the different aspects of my life.”