Akshay Sateesh and Dr Brooke Resh Sateesh Image Credit: Grace Paras, ANM

At the St Lucia Creche and Day Care Centre in an underprivileged neighbourhood of South Africa, an outdoors class is in session. Peals of laughter and animated chatter can be heard from the green patch behind the centre’s building. A man prowls around like a lion, roaring loudly. Behind him a motley group of children imitate him, running around and roaring in their squeaky kid voices. A few minutes later, the roaring morphs to quacking as the man waddles around the little green patch, then to meowing as he starts strutting around like a cat... The little kids follow suit, giggling laughing and having the time of their lives.

At the Princess Marina hospital in Gaborone, Botswana, a young dermatologist is patiently attending to a long queue of patients. It’s almost noon and she has been with the patients since early morning. Most of the patients are HIV positive and need a cocktail of drugs and medication, not to mention hours of counselling as well. The doctor listens patiently to her patient, smiles and pats his back, nods sympathetically with another ... the bond of trust they share is visibly really strong.
These are just a few everyday incidents in the lives of Akshay Sateesh, 30, a teacher, and his dermatologist wife Dr Brooke Resh Sateesh, 30. Oh yes, and they are on their honeymoon!

They got married in May last year but decided to set aside the first
year of their married life doing something not many newly-weds would do – to see the world, connect with different cultures and offer their services free of cost wherever possible. Based in San Diego in the United States, they decided to step out of their comfort zones for a year, live on their savings and donate a large part of their time and effort to making a difference in the lives of less privileged people.

“We have always had this desire to help the underprivileged,’’ says Akshay who, along with his wife, was in Dubai last month to spend some time with his parents who are based here. “I grew up in Malaysia and I used to see my mother volunteer for all kinds of charity projects selflessly.

“In 2003 I worked with mentally challenged children in Kuala Lumpur using dramatics as therapy at the children’s theatre.

“Brooke’s father Dr William Resh has been running the San Diego Family Dermatology Clinic for the last 30 years and Brooke has always tried to help those who could not afford treatments. As a student she had volunteered to work in an orphanage in Ecuador and at student-run free medical clinics in San Diego.’’

When she finished college, she decided to start her medical career a little differently. “We both love travelling, learning about new cultures, exploring new challenges, understanding the historical perspective of a new place... So we thought, ‘Why not do something different before settling down?’’’

Common ground
Akshay and Brooke met in Philadelphia at the University of Pennsylvania. Brooke was graduating after studying dermatology while Akshay was pursuing a degree in biomedical engineering. After graduating, Akshay worked as a team leader launching medical devices and implants and liaising with pharmaceutical firms on related projects. But his real love was improvisational theatre. While in Philadelphia, he founded the Philly N-crowd, an Improvisational theatre group, and the Industrial, another improvisational troupe that performed in festivals across the East Coast of US. Both his ventures became very popular and successful and that set him thinking about using theatre as an effective tool for creative communication.

 He founded and partnered Ziksana Consulting, a company to help individuals and industry use theatre and improvisation to improve productivity for team building, creativity, innovation, leadership and change solutions in corporate situations. The two chose the same apartment complex in Philadelphia and their friendship grew after they found that they shared a lot in common, especially their passion to offer a helping hand to society.

Repaying society

“Both of us were very keen to give back something to the world. So we decided to take a gap year, so to speak. It was the best way to begin our married life and at the end of this one year we are returning to San Diego with many amazing experiences.”

Once they made up their mind, there was no looking back. After their wedding the two chalked out their year-long programme. “We wanted to work in Botswana, watch some of the soccer matches in South Africa, go sight seeing in Singapore and Indonesia, visit Akshay’s parents later in Dubai, hop off to Jordan and Egypt as well..,’’ says Brooke.
It turned out to be ‘megamoon’ trip as some of their university friends described it.

Brooke got onto the internet
and found out about Health Volunteers Overseas which was looking for young people to undertake volunteer work in Cambodia.
She also found out about a joint programme between the Princess Marina Hospital and her alma mater, University of Pennsylvania and decided to offer her services.
Their major voluntary work was concentrated in Botswana and Cambodia where Akshay worked at the local school while Brooke volunteered as an assistant to
a dermatologist at a city hospital, spending six weeks on each projects.

Says Akshay: “Interacting with children in Botswana and Cambodia was a journey of sorts for me. When I decided I wanted to volunteer as a teacher, I knew I wanted it to be a memorable experience for the students as well as for me. I chose the creative method of teaching children to emote and communicate. The children just loved this new way
of learning. It gave them a fresh angle – having fun while learning. It also helped me realise what a powerful tool improvisational theatre is.

Every morning I would teach the children to loosen up and freely express their feelings. I taught the toddlers to imitate the voices of domestic animals and birds like dogs, cats and ducks. The older children were involved in more complex communication exercises.

“I could see, especially in Cambodian kids, many of whom had lost either or both parents, the deep attachment they had for each other. They were family to each other and each one helped the other. They worked so well together.

“I have always wanted to bring a smile to faces of kids and working with them helped me learn a lot as well. In fact, I became more sure than ever about using drama and improvisation as a tool to teach people to communicate better after working with these kids. The children had no inhibitions and were willing to learn everything. I looked forward to each class and had a very eager class each day.

“One of the more important things for me was the fact that I was in these places because I had chosen to be there and had not been forced by anyone. One of the most important lessons I learnt was how to listen to people.”

Brooke seconds that. Her work at the hospitals was more stressful as she had to deal with sickness and despair. “I think it was a very rewarding opportunity for me as I got to improve my medical knowledge. The HIV infection rate in Botswana is very high and the skin conditions such patients have are very typical but more extreme and very different from what I would have ever come across in San Diego. I got a lesson in treating patients with limited resources.

“It was not uncommon to have a crowd of people patiently waiting in queues from early morning to meet me and very often the pharmacy would run out of medicines. These people did not mind waiting for three to eight hours just to see me. And many a time they would turn back disappointed when we had run out of medical supplies. Back home I would never wait for a doctor more than half an hour. What really touched me was that each patient was so meticulous. Each one would come in with a detailed history and a thick file, carrying each and every paper and test report so that whichever doctor sees them gets a full perspective about their ongoing ailment. I was impressed by their thoroughness. Many of them would be scared and anxious and even giving them time, talking to them and sharing their anxieties meant so much to them. I am going back with so much knowledge about patient psychology and intend to incorporate this knowledge in my practice in San Diego.”

Nothing extraordinary
The duo do not think that what they decided to do was something out of the ordinary. In fact, what really touched them was seeing several volunteers at both places doing the best they could to help the people. “It was a great feeling to see so many people from around the world who had come to Botswana and Cambodia in our centres to do whatever volunteer work they could. One felt humbled by that and it turned into a great learning and giving experience,” says Akshay.

Brooke feels the experience also made her realise the power people had to change things in the world if they actually put their mind to it.

One of the regular obstacles that the couple faced was that of language. In St Lucia, they required a Zulu-English translator and in Phnom Penh a Khmer-English translator, “Initially I asked the translator to come into the class,” says Akshay, “but I soon realised that it took a longer time for the translator to make me understand what the person was saying. The next day I relied on my own instincts to communicate through sounds and body language and I realised that the language of love was universal. The children followed my instructions effortlessly.”

The couple will continue their work in their neighbourhood back in the US. “It’s not as though this gap year is enough for us. We intend to continue helping people and we decided we could do continue closer home. Poverty and sickness exist everywhere. In our neighbourhood there are many poor and underprivileged people who need help. Once we set up our home in San Diego, we both look forward to doing our bit for society. Akshay will get busy using improvisation as a tool of communication at Ziksana Consulting and also try and continue teaching drama to underprivileged children while I will work at my father’s clinic and help those who have no funds or insurance for treatment,” says Brooke. This trip has changed the way they see the world forever, says the couple.