Sunderam Srinivasan or “Shrini” as his friends call him, is a permanent resident of Coler Hospital. Coler is a long-term health care facility, part of the New York City public hospital system, located on Roosevelt Island in the middle of the East River. Shrini, 62-years-old, has been here for seventeen years, some of it spent attached to a ventilator, all of it confined to a wheelchair.
“In ‘82-’83 I was in the Middle East, this was my first real experience with how the Mid-East attracts laborers to build their countries,” Shrini relates. Looking at him now in his motorized wheelchair in an anonymous hospital corridor, it’s hard to picture him as the active reporter he once was. It was complications from polio he contracted as a baby in his native India that has plagued him his entire life, but this was not enough to dissuade him a career in journalism. His most memorable position was writing for the India Express where he worked covering the 1975 state of emergency under Indira Gandhi’s leadership. It was there that he witnessed first-hand the government’s crackdown and the ensuing loss of freedom of the press.
“I was always fascinated with the power of journalism and how democracy functions,” he said. “Elections give people a voice, they come to elections to express their voice and what they really are expressing is freedom and hope - hope is the most important part of life. Hope leads to service, and service leads to society.”
Polio has given Shrini a small body which in no way reflects his stature in the hospital. He is the president of the residents council, a state-mandated position where he represents the interests of the roughly 800 patients at Coler. In this role, his most noteworthy accomplishment is perhaps the initiation of the hospital’s own radio station, the first of its kind in the country.
“There were three things we were trying to accomplish,” he relates. “It’s a place where patient residents can come to talk, but it is also therapeutic – it allows patients to do something. But then it’s also about networking with other long-term health care facilities – there’s a lot of human interest stories there.”
Warming to his subject, Shrini recounts, “if you really look at health care in America, there’s so much wealth but there’s very little health, which is a paradox,” he says, smiling. “The reason I say that is because the health care industry is controlled by a few people and they’re trying to set policy for the whole country.”
“Why don’t you ask me about the flags,” he questions me, suddenly. Attached to the back of Shrini’s wheelchair is a collection of new-looking colorful flags from nations all over the world, all on wooden poles like those sold at parades. When I comply he delivers the simple explanation while beaming, “because if you love the world, the world loves you.”