Bringing Health Home: Winnipeg physician gives people living with addictions in Punjab, India a chance to heal

Kernjeet Sandhu is a family physician working to help people living with addictions in India and in Winnipeg, MB. Kernjeet and her four siblings were born in that city, after her parents moved from Punjab, a state bordering Pakistan and the heart of India’s Sikh community. Kernjeet and her family are practicing Punjabi Sikh and she grew up with Punjabi speaking grandparents.  

Fluent in both English and Punjabi, Kernjeet is the founder of Punjabi Doc, an initiative that aims to provide health awareness and improved health care to rural populations of Northern India. In recent years, Kernjeet and Punjabi Doc have been working in Punjab, providing resources, medical advice and support for people living with mental illness and addictions.

Kenjeet reached out to A Quarter Young on Instagram and we are thrilled to have had the chance to talk to her about what growing up in Canada was like for her family and how she’s working to improve lives of people in places close to her heart, both at home and afar.

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1. What traditions has your family kept and continued to practice, while living here in Canada, after moving from northern India?

Tradition in our culture is very important. As a Punjabi Sikh family we have maintained celebrating big occasions such as Vaisakhi (the birth of our religion) and Diwali (the festival of lights). We also celebrate our Gurus’ birthdays at times, by going to the Sikh Temple (Gurudwara).

2. How was your parents’ journey from northern India to Canada?

My dad arrived in the early 1970s and my mom came a few years later. It was a big adjustment, getting to know a new country, new language. My dad always tells the story of repeatedly falling in the snow because he did not know there was ice under the “fluffy white snow.” Struggles [were mostly due to] jobs and money. As immigrants, my parents’ goals were to work hard, make money and educate their children. So they fulfilled their dreams and gave us an amazing life. We are now two physicians, a chiropractor and a pilot!

3. What types of jobs did your parents have when they first moved to Canada? What do you remember about your parents’ work lives when you were a child? 

They worked all sorts of jobs. My dad worked as a welder, delivery driver and then spent over 20 years at Kromar Printing Ltd., printing binding books and cutting paper. My mom worked various jobs including kitchen work at the Winnipeg Convention Centre and also printing work at Kromar with my dad.

I remember my parents working a lot but always making time for us, too. I was always fascinated by how, consistently, one parent was home with the kids. My mother and father tried to have alternating shifts. And any chance they got, my parents would try to work on [western] holidays to make overtime.

4. How do you think their career paths have impacted you? 

My parents were mostly involved in labour work. But we saw how hard that was and how much they had to work to earn a living. Their work ethic is what motivated me to want to become a [physician] and help people.

5. How often do you get to travel back to where your family is from?

I have been traveling back to Marhana, Punjab – the village my dad is from – since 1992. I have made a total of 12 trips back so far and since 2011, I have gone back every year.

6. How would you describe Winnipeg’s appreciation and acceptance of people with varying traditions and cultural practices? 

Winnipeg is a great city for acceptance. Having lived in different places in the world and having spent the last five years living in the United States, I can truly say that Canada has a great acceptance of culture, change and tradition.

Kernjeet in 2013 at her out-patient office in the closest city to her village, Tarn Taran at Guru Nanak Dev Hospital. Courtesy of: Kernjeet Sandhu.
Kernjeet in 2013 at her out-patient office in the closest city to her village, Tarn Taran at Guru Nanak Dev Hospital. Courtesy of: Kernjeet Sandhu.

7. When did you realize you wanted to be a doctor? 

[My family encouraged me to be a doctor growing up] but the decision happened in 2001, when I saw the difficulty my family in India was facing with health issues. [I learned] how Punjab struggled with health care in general. The lack of access to health care and the lack of education about health are what creates a disconnect for the people of Punjab.

8. How does your practice as a doctor both in Winnipeg and to Punjab help you carry out your own values (whether personal or values that originated from your family’s heritage)? 

My practice as a physician in general helps me carry out my values in many ways. Helping people and supporting them through their lives is a passion of mine. This also is something the Sikh faith teaches, something we call Seva. Seva is a Sanskrit word meaning selfless service or work performed without any reward or payment.

9. On your website, you talk about the increasing drug use in Punjab. What types of drugs are being used? How old is the average user?

Mostly in Punjab we see opiate usage, through different forms of the opium poppy, such as powder or injection. It’s prepared in various ways. And more recently, heroin injections and opioid pills, oxycodone and percocets [are increasing in use]. The average age of a user is between 17 and 24.

The view from the road connected to Kernjeet's dad's village and close to her ancestral home. "This view provides me with a sense of peace, when I touch this part of the earth in India, its almost as if my existence makes sense. I make sense," Kernjeet says. Courtesy of: Kernjeet Sandhu.
The view from the road connected to Kernjeet’s dad’s village and close to her ancestral home. “This view provides me with a sense of peace, when I touch this part of the earth in India, its almost as if my existence makes sense. I make sense,” Kernjeet says. Courtesy of: Kernjeet Sandhu.

10. Have you had a personal experience with addiction and mental illness? What inspired you to explore this field and help people experiencing drug addiction and alcoholism? 

Yes, personal experience is what drew me to this work. My father’s younger brother, so my uncle, had a significant history of alcohol use and he passed away from this in 1999. I had just seen him in 1998 and left him thinking, “I will be back to help,” and a few months later he had passed. Then in 2011, the son of this same uncle, my first cousin Lali, died suddenly, possibly of an overdose. I was very close to him. Though we cannot say for sure, as there was no evidence to suggest an overdose, there was no other cause for sudden death in this otherwise healthy 28-year-old.

These two individuals shaped my life significantly while they were alive and their absence in my life is felt every day. I wanted so much to help them, yet time was against me in some ways. So they are what created the further motivation to help the youth of Punjab.

11. What do you think is one of the most common misconception about drug addicts and alcoholics? How do you work to change this stigma? 

In India, patients feel like they “did this to themselves,” in that they don’t understand addiction is actually a real illness just like any other medical condition. I work to change this stigma by talking to patients about this, working on this with them, creating a new line of thinking and motivating the people of Punjab.

12. You work with addicts and on health promotion and health education – that gives you a lot of responsibility. What’s the toughest part of your job?

The toughest part of the job is getting through to patients what I want so much for them to understand. So working with them, educating them and having them follow up is probably the toughest part. My work is with patients in rural villages,  so most of the time it’s me getting out to them versus them coming to see me at my location. Transportation can be a challenge, as well.

13. What’s the most rewarding part?

Listening to my patients, supporting them and seeing them turn around their disease process with my support is the most amazing feeling.

Kernjeet and her team set up a pharmacy table. Courtesy of: Kernjeet Sandhu.
Kernjeet and her team set up a pharmacy table. Courtesy of: Kernjeet Sandhu.

14. How does your job as a family doctor in Winnipeg differ from your job in India?

There are many differences and similarities, actually. The difference is mostly in the culture and language. Patients in India have different expectations of care and react differently to advice. So it’s important to understand where they are coming from to avoid judgment and to support them.  

15. What do you hope the future of your practice will entail? 

I hope to continue helping patients in Punjab with general medical problems, mental health and addiction. I hope to start doing this two to three times a year. Right now, Punjabi Doc makes one trip per year.

16. Are you a one-woman army, or do you have a team helping you with Punjabi Doc and your projects overseas?

Both. I do some work alone while I am away from India in Canada, just coordinating and organizing my Punjabi Doc trips. Then, when I am in Punjab, I have a group of people that help me out. [They are part of an NGO] that has the typical NGO structure. We also have on the ground volunteers locally in Punjab. To volunteer, visit www.punjabidoc.com and fill out the “contact us” form.

Hospital staff at a medical camp Kernjeet and her team hosted in a village close to the hospital. Courtesy of: Kernjeet Sandhu.
Hospital staff at a medical camp Kernjeet and her team hosted in a village close to the hospital. Courtesy of: Kernjeet Sandhu.

17. In your practice and with your travel experience, you must hear many heartwarming, and heartbreaking, stories. What is one story that sticks out to you, still, today?

I had one patient in India whom I had helped with medical care and advice. He came to me afterwards with his hands together, like in prayer pose, and said thank you and almost kneeled before me. It was such a humbling experience. I took him by the arms and said, “You are human just like me and we can tackle this together as a team!”

18. How do you stay inspired and motivated to keep giving and healing? 

My inspiration and motivation comes from doing the work and seeing patients progress. The most amazing feeling is seeing someone get better and supporting them through it!

19. What advice would you like to share with our readers? 

Giving and receiving love is the utmost way to feel fulfilled. Happiness comes from within. And do what your heart desires, because you only have the present moment.

Kernjeet is standing on the land that belonged to her ancestors but has since been passed down to her father and his brother. Here, they grow and harvest wheat. "The most soothing calming grounding place in the world for me is the road leading out of my dad's village, Marhana in Punjab, India," Kernjeet says. Courtesy of: Kernjeet Sandhu.
Kernjeet is standing on the land that belonged to her ancestors but has since been passed down to her father and his brother. Here, they grow and harvest wheat. “The most soothing, calming, grounding place in the world for me is the road leading out of my dad’s village, Marhana in Punjab, India,” Kernjeet says. Courtesy of: Kernjeet Sandhu.

Thank you, Kernjeet! We admire your compassion, dedication and drive to make change. We cannot wait to continue to follow your journey and your mission to change lives.

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