Her office is adorned with statues of goddesses and crystals; she’s inadvertently sparked protests in India, and is lovingly coined, “the White Tamil” by her Sri Lankan colleagues. From impoverished fishermen — whose children were swept away by a Tsunami — to New York’s rich and famous in private hospitals, Dr. Ellyn Shander lovingly, and if necessary, forcefully, doles out her energy and expertise with equal fervor. With an MD in Psychiatry, Ellyn deftly adjusts dosages of anti-psychotic meds, and then leads a guided visualization involving “Goddess Energy.” Small in stature, she almost prances when she walks, be it leading a protest or demanding the best care for hurricane Katrina victims. From Connecticut to Cambodia, Haiti to Tibet, Ellyn does not fit in. Rather, she stands out — to the delight of those in need of her loving care, and to the utter fear of anyone standing in the way of her path to justice.
Speech given at Lincoln Memorial – speaking out on behalf of tens of thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils massacred by the government.
1) What first impression do people get of you, is it accurate?
2) What are your biggest passions in life and how have they influenced your chosen path?
Hmm, I think my biggest passion is service, helping people find their inner magnificence, inner power – also fighting for justice. Being a doctor and healer puts me in a position everyday to do this. After the Tsunami in Asia, I went and did service in Sri Lanka as a doctor, and I found out that there was a civil war between the Sinhalese government, and the minority, called the Tamil people. I went back for a second trip and I realized that the Tamil people were being destroyed in genocide. The third time I went back, I found out that they [the government] had killed all the kids in the village that I had helped the first time. And that devastated me. Their pictures sat by my computer day in and day out. I didn’t know anybody to work with. I just knew that this was bad, and this was wrong, and I wanted to do something.I’ve also done medical and psychiatric volunteering in many disaster areas, including taking 7 trips to Haiti. We also brought hundreds of stuffed animals to the hospital to give to children, who were wounded by the earthquake, some were amputees. We gave them out and their smiles were so sweet — the moms took little stuffed animals for the little babies who were wounded too. The physical effects are devastating, and sometimes the psychological effects are overlooked, so I try to address both. If a parent is too traumatized to care for children, for example, everyone suffers even more, so in my work I try to address all aspects, including mind and soul.
Because I grew up in a family that talked about the Holocaust, even though they weren’t in it, I always think, “If I were in a German family and Jewish people came to my door to be hidden, would I have done it? Would I have risked my family, my life, my children?” I would like to tell you I would have, but I don’t know. So this round, this time, this life, I will do the very best I can for anybody who needs help . . . so when the Tamil people showed up in my life, I started writing letters and going on the Internet, and a group of Tamil activists found me and we joined together. So I spent four years of my life going to Congress, going to the UN, talking to people about the genocide, and trying to get justice.
3) Was this something you knew early on, something you unexpected discovered, or something that is still being revealed to you?
4) Tell us one of your most funny or memorable stories related to the pursuit of your passion?
When I was fighting for the Tamil people I was invited to go India to do to five-city speech about how the Indian government could do more to help the Tamil people in Sri Lanka. Right before my trip, the Indian government revoked my visa and I couldn’t go — of course I argued and I lost. I was devastated — not so much for myself, but because the people who were counting on me were losing a voice. It became big publicity in India: how they could squash freedom of speech and why they wouldn’t give the American doctor a visa. I was very upset and I prayed, and within 24 hours somebody called me and offered a free service to videotape my speech and send it to India, and that’s exactly what we did. And within a few days that video speech was played in theatres all over India. There were huge traffic jams, I was told, with people pushing to go into theatres to see it. And I got taught a lesson: never say never—and if you’re faced with an obstacle, look for some guidance. Still, it’s a continual disappointment that I’ve been banned form India this whole time, and you know, I’d really like my visa.Also, I’ve had to look at baggage I was carrying from my family of origin and figure out how to drop it. I’ve had to drop fear, a feeling of aloneness and disconnect from other people, and realize that we’re always connected. Also, I guess, prejudices – I think that my family of origin was very prejudiced towards other people and cultures. From time to time I would see that this would pop up [in myself] and I’d have to look very carefully and say, “Where is this coming from? This is not who I am.” So, the challenge to each of us is to look at where we grew up, appreciate any strengths or values in it, and really discard anything that interferes with our magnificence.
7) Any lessons/words of advice on finding and staying on your path; or in order words, is there something that society tells us, that you now know is bull shit?
There are no limits to what each one of us can do. Some of the people I treat had such broken, abusive, horrendous childhoods, and yet are graceful and peaceful and wonderful moms – and I am so impressed. They overcame horrible childhoods and figured out how to love and encourage their children, with no help from their parents. They inspire me to overcome and fight any negative edges inside of myself. Nobody should have limits set on them by themselves or others . We have no ceiling to what we can accomplish ! I know that I cant fly, that is unrealistic, but what I am saying is that I can fly in my life in whatever capacity I want to go forward in. I know that with goodness and intention and the highest mission, you can do anything. Anything.
8) What are your main goals for the future?
9) Outside of the path you chose, if you could have pursued one other career, what would it be and why?
10) If you could spend a weekend anywhere in the world, where would you go and why?