Ebenezer Chambi: Dialogue with an Adventist physician, health educator, and community leader

Born in Peru, Dr. Ebenezer Chambi developed early in his life a sense of community and an inclination to service. His family was active in the local church. Throughout his educational experience, he was guided by a commitment to help others. In 1970, he completed his pre-medical studies at Union College (now Peru Union University) located near Lima, the capital. Although he wanted to study medicine in his homeland, the then prevailing political situation made this virtually impossible. His older brothers had moved to Mexico to pursue their medical training; so did he.

Completing his medical degree from the Autonomous University of Guadalajara, Mexico, in 1975, he did his residencies in Puerto Rico and Los Angeles, California. After completing the latter, Dr. Chambi joined a research team to study epilepsy.

Currently, he is practicing general medicine at the Chapel Medical Clinic in South Gate, California. In addition to ensuring quality care to his patients, Dr. Chambi brings his Christian commitment to bear on his profession by continually promoting preventive care and healthful living. He is involved in his community through a variety of activities ranging from sponsoring folk music concerts to speaking to high school students on health. In recognition of his community service, he received in 1994 the La Sierra University Presidential Citation for Humanitarian Service.

Ebenezer Chambi and his wife, Esther, have three children who are pursuing advanced studies: Esther Janet, Ebenezer Howard, and Eber Caleb.

Dr. Chambi, what influences have shaped your life?

Perhaps the same four major influences that shape all of us: family, education, community, and religion. The family teaches us how to care for each other. Parents care for children, children care for each other and their parents. In a good home, we learn to love people unconditionally. Education is one of the major ways to learn about ourselves and develop our talents and intellectual skills. It structures our personality. Community teaches us that we are not alone—no one is an island. We depend on other people and they depend on us. Christianity gives us inner strength, especially when we feel discouraged and don’t have energy to keep going. There is a higher power, God, ready to help us. Religion gives us the powerful tool of confidence. It brings us strength and hope. It keeps us from giving up on life. At the end of the journey, it gives us the assurance of a better life.

What type of research did you do in epilepsy?

Epilepsy can be a very debilitating disease, and our team wanted to find its cause and determine whether it could be successfully treated or even cured. We studied a diverse population in the Los Angeles area, seeking ways of helping epilepsy victims. The results were rewarding. Some were cured. Many were able to live relatively normal lives and return to their vocations.

Currently, what does your practice cover?

I am involved in general practice. Beyond the regular treatment of patients, I focus on preventive medicine. I want to teach people how to live healthier, happier lives. In my practice, I see a lot of baby boomers. I’m one of them, so I know what they are like and how they live. Because they work so many hours and have so many activities, they often wait until the last possible moment to come to see me, knowing that a visit to the doctor takes time. They usually don’t come in when they have a slight cold or a stomach ache. They visit my office only when they sense that they are in serious trouble and need help. We do a complete check-up, including blood and urine tests. Most of the time we find that they have high cholesterol levels; they are not eating right and not exercising. Most of the common problems can be prevented, and I emphasize that.

How do you convince busy people to live healthier lives?

The key is behavior modification. We can give objective explanations of why a person should exercise more or spend some time relaxing rather than overworking, but it is challenging to convince people that they need to make fundamental changes in how they live. At times a physician needs to be quite direct, even blunt, to persuade patients to radically alter their lifestyle.

A while back, a man, suffering from exhaustion, came to my office. He was working at two jobs so he could buy a new house every year. His wife told me that he worked too many hours a day and did not take time to relax and enjoy life. She told me that they already owned three homes and that he wanted to buy another one. I told her, “Don’t worry. The more he works, the more houses he will leave to you when he dies!” He got the message and changed his habits.

Do you also utilize the media to educate the public?

When I was doing my residence in Puerto Rico, I started a radio program on health prevention and promotion. Then here, in the Los Angeles area, I hosted for ten years a weekly radio forum called El Médico Habla (The Physician Speaks) that was quite popular. We have also prepared several short video programs on health that I make available to pastors and TV cable stations.

Does the emphasis on exercise and nutrition in the popular media help in having people change their lifestyle?

Yes. Ten or 15 years ago, it was more difficult to convince people that they needed to exercise and eat well. But now, the media’s coverage of prevention and health has made my job easier in terms of education. The problem is that many people who understand the principles of healthful living aren’t putting them into practice. They still eat too much fast food and stay up too late watching the late shows.

Fortunately, people are beginning to see the light. The city where I practice has a park where you can see more people running, walking, and doing other exercises than in any other park in the nearby cities. I like to think this has something to do with our emphasis on exercise.

The hamburger place that is near our office now also sells vegetarian burgers. I think that shows some of the positive influence we’ve had on people who are trying to eat more healthful foods.

How can people who are not involved in the health-care profession effectively spread the message of healthful living?

All of us exert an influence and convey a silent message wherever we go. People are searching for a better life, and they look up to good role models. If we spend time with people, we can influence them positively by your example. I’ve found it effective not to preach at people, but rather to lead by example. We can encourage others to see that there’s a better life.

It’s easy to become so focused on our own studies or profession that we forget that we are part of a larger community outside our walls. How can a person who has become so insulated begin to interact with the larger community beyond their family or church?

Before I became active in the community, it was easy to be critical of those outside my circle. But after I became involved, I discovered how much good I could do and how much I enjoyed it.

Get to know other people, especially those with whom we would not normally associate. It will help with your social and intellectual development. You will also learn how your community works and how you can help.

Becoming involved begins with something as simple as the way you greet people. Start with a solid and sincere, “Good morning. How are you?” Speak words of encouragement. Learn to listen. Meet with the people who are having problems in your area of expertise who don’t know where to look for help. Focus on relieving their suffering.

A few years ago, an earthquake hit the Los Angeles area. When people asked me why I left my office to volunteer in the relief efforts, I told them that I was just paying part of my debt to my community. The community has given me a lot and I want to give back. It’s a two-way street.

And don’t forget to have fun! One of the things I do is organize folk-music concerts. And though lots of people enjoy them, I enjoy them the most!

How do you apply this involvement in your church?

I love my church like a family. I do things not to be recognized or rewarded, but because I want to do something for Christ and my church. If you start a project with the goal of being recognized for your efforts, you miss the point. Instead, do the job because it is important and necessary.

As a successful physician, a health educator, and community leader, what would your counsel be to people who are just entering their careers?

Learn from successful people by watching how they live, how they get along with others, and how they maintain their emotional balance. Emulate their good traits. If I retrace my journey, being active in the church and in the community were the most important factors that kept me on track. Those of us who have been blessed by talents and education can do much good. Put yourself where God can use your skills. Take the initiative to help the community and make people’s lives better. That is a worthwhile goal in life.

Interview by Michael Peabody. Michael Peabody is a third year law student at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. E-mail: mdpeabod@pepperdine.edu Dr. Chambi’s address: 9739 California Ave.; South Gate, California 90280; U.S.A.