BY KELLY DYER FRY, Editor, The Oklahoman
he wooden gate in front of the childhood home of Dr. R. Murali Krishna creaks when it opens. That's how R. Ranga Rajya Lakshmi knows her children are home from school.
She greets them at the door with a warm smile, homemade crackers and sweetened lemon water. Neighborhood children know the house well. It is a warm house with a red-tiled roof. Love and affection are offered to all who pass through the creaky gate.
Murali and his two sisters are happy and cared for. They want for nothing, though they have very little in material wealth. In the late 1950s, their small home is in Kakinada in the East Godavari district of the state of Andhra Pradesh in India.
Today when Dr. Krishna smiles, his face almost disappears. The crinkles around his eyes scrunch up and a quick smile spreads effortlessly across his face. He has a big laugh and is quick to give you a hug and pat on the back. He has a presence, almost a glow about him. It is one of calm, one of peacefulness. Krishna, 62, serves as president, COO and medical director of Integris Mental Health. He is also the president and co-founder of the James L. Hall Jr. Center for Mind, Body and Spirit. He has spent hours and hours listening to the pain of others. But few know of his personal story.
He speaks often on the connection between a healthy mind, body and spirit. It broke his heart when he had to stop taking new patients so he could widen his circle of influence. He is on a mission. A mission to raise the level of awareness for diseases of the mind.
"I want to bring to the awareness of people about the suffering that people with brain disorders go through just like diabetes or heart disease."
From the depth of his soul, he wants you to understand. He needs you to understand.
"The strength to heal and the courage to deeply care for others in life are inherently present in each one of us. Sometimes they may be suppressed by superficial factors but almost always can be found by our volition or discovered by a deeply touching life experience. Countless people want to make a genuine difference in others' lives but may never discover the full extent of this spiritual quality by themselves until asked by someone or given an opportunity."
Young Murali grew accustomed to his mom's greeting every day after school. The neighborhood children trail behind him so they too can share in the after-school treats. The energetic mother not only helps her children with their homework, but many of the neighborhood children as well. They sit at the kitchen table as Ranga holds court. She only has a fifth-grade education, but Murali knows his mom, his "Amma" is smart. After homework and a snack, the children return to the streets to play cricket and soccer. Ranga continues preparation of the evening meal for her family.
There are eight characteristics of happy people, says Dr. Krishna on his recording titled "Seven Steps to a Happier Life." People who like themselves are happy, he says. People who are happy feel a sense of personal control. They are optimistic and extroverted. They have close, caring relationships and a strong spiritual foundation. Happy people live a life with balance and look for creative options to solve problems. "Every human can develop and acquire these properties." His Indian accent and rapid speech are interspersed with chuckles and jokes. You can hear the audience laughing during his presentation. Dr. Krishna can't get through a joke without starting to laugh.
He glides easily from joking to serious topics. Stress, he says, cannot be avoided. The responsibility of stress belongs to each of us, not to anyone else. Some stress comes from demands on us from the outside, and some stress comes from the inside. "All the gifts — mental, physical, material and spiritual — given to you by the Creator are possessed by us for a very temporary time. They are meant to be generously shared with those in need of them. It is a true blessing to realize this before we are no longer in possession of them. It is great to develop a sense of urgency and gratitude in sharing them."
Murali is 9 years old. He bounds through the creaky gate and through the front door of his two-room house. No Amma. Surprised and a little disappointed his hug and snack are not standing in the threshold of his home, he goes to the bedroom where all five family members sleep each night. He is stunned by what he sees. His always-vibrant mother, his beautiful loving mother, is lying on the bed staring at the ceiling. She is silent. She won't talk. Something is wrong. Murali had never seen his mother sick. He feels scared. He pokes and prods and gets her to respond a little, but life is changing. It is changing for everyone. Forever.
Anger can become destructive, says Dr. Krishna. Anger is normal but recognize the early warning signs. Do something about it. Persistent anger kept inside can destroy us. Know when you can and can't change the situation. We can't all be Mother Teresa but there is something we can do.
Learn balance and the art of forgiveness, he tells anyone who will listen. Being able to forgive has tremendous healing power. Let anger go. Let it go so it won't destroy us. He tells audiences about "flow." Flow means you are accepting whatever it is you don't have control over. It does not mean that you are accepting that it is "right." You are accepting the fact that you cannot change it. Let it flow over you like water flowing through a container.
"One may not always realize the meaning of suffering of ourselves or our loved one but at some point more clarity and understanding will emerge that may define our deeper purpose in life. It has certainly happened in me even though it was evolving over a long period of time," Dr. Krishna said.
After that day his mother comes and goes without ever leaving the house. The houses are close together. The shared wall does little to prevent the sounds of Ranga from reaching the neighbors. They can hear the young mother speaking incoherently. Sometimes loud. Murali goes from fear to shame back to fear. His mother is often uncommunicative and unreachable. Where is my Amma?
Slow down. We have to savor each moment. Dr. Krishna tells his audience to learn to calm the mind and the body. Practice every day. He explains that we can choose to attach energy to a situation or detach it. When it comes to trauma, the suffering is true. "Learn to withdraw the energy from that event that is causing misery in your life."
"Experiencing and nurturing those intangible elements in life like gratitude, love, compassion, hope, optimism, trust, connectivity and empathy will unleash vibrant and creative energy in one's life. This often may lead to finding the meaning and purpose in one's life."
One day young Murali entered the house carrying his school books. No sign of Amma. He let his books fall to the floor as he went to the bedroom in search of her. No one. Empty beds. He can feel his heart quicken and knows he has only one place left to search. Maybe she is in the backyard in the small bathroom. As he enters the backyard trimmed with rose bushes, he sees his mom. She is standing in the yard. Smoke is rising from her yellow sari with black trim. Flames. She is setting herself on fire. Murali grabs his mother and hugs her to his chest to smother the flames. "Amma, Amma." He is sobbing. Maternal instinct overpowers her despair and she quickly begins to tend to her little boy. Why? Why? How can this be happening to my beautiful mother? She takes him by the hand and leads him into the house. She removes his white cotton shirt which is now blackened and singed. She gives him sweetened lemon water and small homemade crackers. When Murali's father, R. Swamy, gets home from work he tells his father of the fire. The exchange of pain between father and son is palpable.
A frequent speaker across the country, Dr. Krishna tells his audiences to live in the present. "If you can change the situation causing stress in you, change it. If there are situations that you cannot change, I want you to develop a new attitude that will help you adapt to it and adjust to it and take the misery out of you and the suffering out of you."
He explains his personal philosophy in simple terms. "I do the very best I can when encountering a major challenge but always put the trust of the outcome in the magnanimous hands of the ever-present Creator."
That night, the family settles into bed in their small bedroom. Murali's bed is right next to his parents. He recalls happier times when bedtime was filled with stories and laughter. He sleeps very little, rising periodically to check on his mom. He sees her in the early dawn slip quietly from her bed. His father is still asleep. Where is she going? He too slips from the bedroom and begins to follow her outside. He keeps his distance in the beginning. The morning is chilly and no one is on the street. He can see the milkman a couple streets over. She keeps walking. She passes the large statue of Gandhi and heads toward the river. The river that is usually bustling with handmade boats hauling bright colored vegetables from one town to another is silent. Colorful boats stacked with potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant and greens have not yet begun their daily rituals. He starts yelling for her to stop. Amma! Amma! He waves his arms and sees that she is entering the water. She is dressed in a dark sari and the water is rising around her. The sides of the river are shallow, but the center is rushing. If she reaches the center, she will be swept quickly away. He won't be able to save her. Murali rushes into the water behind her and she continues forward. He cannot swim. As the water rises he begins to choke, gasp for breath. He is reaching for his mom but she is just beyond his grasp. He lurches forward and manages to wrap his arms around her. He will not let go. Once again a mother's love overcomes the depth of her sorrows. She is just two steps away from the swift moving current. She stops walking as her son clings to her, choking. She cannot let her son die and she realizes he will die before she does. She hangs on to her little boy and they return slowly to shore. Her sari is wet and heavy. They walk hand in hand back toward the Gandhi statue. She has a strong grip on Murali's right hand. He's not sure if she is trying to steady herself or comfort him. His tiny hand may be her only grip on reality. They pause at the statue of Gandhi. Murali understands at this young age that Gandhi is in search of truth. What is the truth for my Amma?
There is meaning behind every event you have, says Dr. Krishna. Hang on to your caring connections. As a scientist I look at my own body. That is why I believe in a higher power.
Murali sits on the porch with his older sister Swarajya Lakshmi and younger sister Rama Devi. They are confused. They are isolated. By now the neighbors stay away from the house with the creaky gate. Rumors circulate through the small town that Ranga may somehow be possessed. Children are no longer allowed to play with the Murali and his sisters. How can they see our Amma in that light? Each of the children handle the crisis in a different way. Murali dives into schoolwork. Studying is his escape. More so, maybe there is an answer to the gnawing question that has settled in his soul. Can I find a way to help my mother?
Murali's grandfather, R. Seetharama Swamy, along with his mother, taught him to read when he was only 3 years old. Murali spent time with his grandfather in his nearby village of only 1,000 people. He skipped several grades and went to medical school at age 15. Medical school brought new hope to his situation. He was able to offer new approaches to his mother's illness. She continued to come and go without leaving her home. After medical school he came to Oklahoma for his residency at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.
If his mother were alive today, he could help her. In looking back, he believes she suffered from severe seasonal affective disorder and bi-polar II. "I would treat her with bright light therapy, 10,000 lux for 30 minutes each day. I would also train her in cognitive restructuring and recommend physical activity and more time outside. Today she could be treated with a combination of therapy and medication and be 90 to 95 percent healthy."
Dr. Krishna's contributions to Oklahoma are broad and sweeping. He was the founding chair and president of the Health Alliance for the uninsured in 2005. He was the catalyst for getting key legislation that gives protection for all health professionals when they volunteer to help the poor and uninsured. This has resulted in greatly increased interest in volunteering among medical students.
He was leading St. Anthony Hospital as chief of staff on April 19, 1995. A colleague stopped him in the parking lot late one night following another 16-hour day after the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. "Murali, how do you do it?" he asked. "What makes you so successful?" The doctor blushed and said it was just hard work. Nothing special. That night as he slept by his wife Sam's side, he sat upright. It dawned on him. I do it for my mother. "She did not suffer for nothing. I see her presence every day in every walk of my life. She has given me a window to help others."
Dr. Krishna's eyes crinkle into his warm smile as he says, "I tell God to please use me up before he takes me."