Dr. Abha Gupta Varma, a physician at Cherry Health, has been practicing for just over two decades. Familiar with the nuances of medicine since she was a kid — both of her parents were doctors — Varma strives to provide the best care she can by talking to patients early and often.
She spoke with Grand Rapids Magazine about her passion for providing the community with accessible medical services at Michigan’s largest federally qualified health center.
Grand Rapids Magazine: How did you get into medicine?
My parents hail from India. They were immigrants back in the ’70s, both of whom were physicians — Dad a gastroenterologist trained at Henry Ford, and Mom, a radiologist trained in Dearborn. Early on, my brother, Ashish, and I gleaned the reverential nature of medicine.
My dad was a true guru and lover of the art and science of medicine. When the phone would ring, and the nurses would say, ‘We have a consult for Dr. Gupta,’ my brother and I would ask, ‘Who is it coming from, and what’s the nature of the consult? What room is the patient located in?’ I mean, really knowing every detail young in life, we might have been 10 and 12, because we understood the importance of his work.
It’s funny, my dad would look at people’s nails and their lips and their tongue and be able to make all kinds of diagnoses, just looking at it through observation, and I find myself years forward doing the same thing, unwittingly. I think that my dad, as a healer hailing from the East, using both an allopathic and naturopathic, homeopathic approach to medicine, has definitely shaped and molded me as a doctor of medicine for 21 years and counting.
GRM: What brought you to Cherry Health?
I liked the pace and the acuity of internal medicine in the hospital, or hospitalist medicine, and I did that for 16 years. In 2016, I realized I needed to become a primary care doc and give back to patients in need of managing preventable diseases. I think I wanted to go to the beginning — hypertension, diabetes, obesity, sleep apnea, depression, anxiety and all of the fundamentals of internal medicine.
Working for Cherry Health, which I’m exceptionally gratified by, I take care of men and women coming out of the prison system. I take care of the indigent, who can walk up to my office from Dégagé and the Salvation Army and Mel Trotter. I say this to everybody, and I mean this: Never take trust and faith for granted when somebody places their entire life and their hope in your hands. That’s a gift. And if you don’t regard it as such, then you won’t treat it as such.
GRM: What makes Cherry Health different from other health centers?
The beauty of a federally qualified health center is that we are taking care of that vulnerable population without question. We have a sliding scale paying opportunity. You bring in your pay stubs for the past month, and that enables us, based on your earnings, to determine what percentage of a visit you will pay for, and some people have 100% coverage.
A federally qualified health center relies on the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services to ensure we remain solvent. We require assistance from the government to exist, and our FQHC, Cherry Health, is the largest federally qualified health center in Michigan. We have over 50,000 patients.
It’s deeply gratifying to be part of such a mission, because we know the work we’re doing is not merely good; it’s imperative. How else are we going to ensure the larger swath of the population continues to get health care, without which we glut our emergency rooms, miss preventable diseases, and see end-stage disease when we could have seen prevention or treatment?
GRM: How has Cherry Health had to pivot during COVID-19?
Telehealth had to become a very recognizable, affordable and sanctioned part of medicine, where the government actually pays us to be telehealth practitioners, without which we couldn’t have safely navigated through COVID. There always is going to be value for the patient who is too infirm to leave the house. With COVID, that applied to the entire world, and just as teachers quickly morphed into a Zoom model, physicians and patients did the same.
For a time, we had a drive-up, get-your-sugar-checked model; we had a mail-blood-pressure-cuffs-to-the-patient model, where we were giving patients free blood pressure cuffs just so that metric could be managed safely. COVID required us to become telehealth gurus, and asking the government to follow suit and cover that cost — insurance companies cover that cost — was deeply relevant to our practice, and it’s actually become great to be able to do telehealth.
GRM: What do you find most meaningful about your work?
Imagine asking a patient why he or she was in prison. Imagine their fear of telling you the truth. I had one such patient, and her trespass was pretty egregious, and she says, ‘Do I have to tell you, Dr. Abha?’ I said, ‘Only if your revelation eases your heart and enables me to take better care of you.’ And it completely relaxed her, and she told me why she had gone to prison. I looked at her and I said, ‘You are more than your trespass; you are more than this crime, and I hope you know and believe that. I believe that. Now let’s start rehabilitating you.’
I regard my position as a preventive medicine practitioner very seriously. I have never been more gratified as a physician, in anything I’ve ever done, than knowing that I’m making a difference in all lives, not merely some lives. Health is not an eventuality. Health is a daily, accessible necessity.
This story can be found in the May/June 2022 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine. To get more stories like this delivered to your mailbox, subscribe here.