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A (Medical) Man of the People


The New Physician September 2001
In front of an audience, Dr. Shawn Aranha looks and sounds like many politicians. Sharply dressed and well-mannered, the 31-year-old Democratic candidate for state representative in Illinois’ 41st District speaks of the need to develop educational accountability, “new growth” economics, fiscal responsibility, community-based law enforcement and more effective environmental policies. And, of course, the first-time candidate hits the hot-button issue of the day: health care.

“The United States is able to offer the best health care in the world, but this means little to those people among us who have limited or no access to affordable, quality health care, especially the most vulnerable people among us: children, senior citizens, the less fortunate and even those who work but cannot afford decent health care for themselves or their loved ones,” Aranha told an audience of supporters in a rally for his Nov. 5 contest against Republican incumbent Robert Biggins to represent the suburban Chicago district.

Assertions like these often draw supporters, particularly among medical students, residents and physicians who witness the reality of U.S. health-care woes. However, voters have also heard similar statements from other politicians. The rhetoric about health care has become so common that it’s difficult to tell when it’s sincere or merely lip service to secure an election.

However, when the statement comes from Aranha, there is little doubt that he understands the need to provide better health care. “Since I’m coming from a medical background, people offer you a certain amount of respect just [because I’m] coming from the field,” he says.

Like many medical graduates, Aranha entered medicine with a desire to help people. After completing his undergraduate studies at Loyola University of Chicago with a bachelor of science in psychology and a bachelor of arts in political science—with minors in international studies, women’s studies, philosophy and theology—he entered Spartan Health Sciences University School of Medicine in St. Lucia, West Indies. Aranha says his grade-point average was insufficient to get him accepted by many U.S. medical schools. “I went to Spartan because they offered me a chance to pursue my dream of becoming a physician,” he says. “In my first year in college when I took the premedical requirements, I suffered a knee injury, which required extensive surgery and led to my doing poorly in the required classes for medical school.”

Despite the early obstacles, Aranha says he flourished at Spartan and at his clinical rotations in several Chicago-area programs. “People don’t say much about my [international medical graduate] status, especially if they know that I have done my clinical clerkships in U.S. medical school teaching affiliate hospitals,” he says.

After graduating from Spartan this spring, Aranha decided to temporarily set down his stethoscope and delay his plans to enter a preventive and internal medicine residency in order to enter the race for Illinois House of Representatives. To him, the move from medicine to politics came naturally. “I believe medicine and politics are related in that they are in the field of public service. I believe strongly in the potential of public service and what one can accomplish in public life,” he says.

Aranha decided the time between medical school and residency would be ideal to test the political waters. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the political iron was hot, so to speak. Aranha says the redistricting of the 41st District has improved the chances for a Democratic candidate, while the state Republican Party has been hounded by the scandals of outgoing Gov. George Ryan. “I have a good chance to win and work on the issues my constituency wants to see addressed, such as health care, education and economic management,” he says.

Born in Oak Brook, Illinois, to prominent Indian-American parents, Aranha says there has always been a mixture of politics and medicine in his life. His mother, Rosemary, is a social worker and a former president of the India Catholic Association of America, and his father, Gerard, is a physician and the chief of surgical oncology at Loyola University Medical Center (LUMC). “In our home, I was surrounded by books, pictures and images of political figures, which reflect my family’s interest in politics. Also my dad, being in the medical field, fostered an environment conducive to discussing medicine,” he says.

With this background, it was no surprise that at an early age, Aranha felt comfortable in the spotlight discussing social issues. He says his first interest in medicine and politics occurred while attending Visitation Catholic School in Elmhurst, Illinois. In the eighth grade, he collaborated with pathologists from LUMC and Hines Veterans Administration Hospital to create a winning science fair project. The same year, Aranha, who had already begun to idolize presidents Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, also got his first taste of politics and won his first election, of sorts, after being chosen by his classmates to be the school’s American Legion award winner for possessing the qualities of courage, honor, leadership, patriotism, scholarship and service. After that, Aranha says, “I knew that politics was something I would pursue and could be successful at.”

While the spark may have occurred early, the political flames were not fanned until Aranha attended college. While at Loyola, he took a class in American history from John Quinn, whose brother Pat Quinn was the state treasurer and a prominent figure in Illinois politics. Soon, Aranha found himself working on Pat Quinn’s campaign for lieutenant governor. And while the campaign was not successful, Aranha credits Quinn with encouraging his interest in public service and his belief that politics can be a noble pursuit.

Aranha’s pursuit now faces a challenge from Biggins, a real estate tax consultant who has served in the Illinois House since 1993. However, the veteran legislator represented the Republican-heavy 78th District, which is now part of the reshaped 41st District. Aranha says the result is a district that is divided between Democratic Cook County and Republican DuPage County. “The way the district is set up is pretty even…. I think there is enough to win,” he says. “The better I can state my message, the better chance I have to win.”

But if his first race for public office is unsuccessful, Aranha has no intentions of dwelling on failure. While campaigning, he is also preparing to participate in the 2003 Match. In addition, he would like to pursue a Master of Public Health degree. And while some people may consider Aranha’s political pursuits a distraction from medicine, he says he has received only support from program directors, instructors and fellow students. “Once they see my genuine sense of duty and purpose and my love for people, they wish me all the best and offer their support and encouragement,” he says.

With so much already on his plate, it would seem there would be little time for Aranha to concern himself with anything else. But, he is also finding time to train for his first marathon, the La Salle Chicago Marathon in October. He sees many parallels in his training to both his medical and political careers. “To run a marathon, one needs love, commitment, passion and dedication, the same qualities I will need to succeed in medicine, politics and life.”
Scott T. Shepherd is an associate editor with The New Physician.