It’s been almost three months since I got back from Orissa, a state on the eastern side of India, and I can’t believe how much I miss it. First and foremost, before discussing the profound impact that this experience has had on me, I want to thank everyone in the staff from the administration to the physicians to the paramedics and everyone else whom I have met here. It is with their guidance and support that this volunteering trip of mine has been such a success. They have been truly wonderful and have made this experience one that I will cherish for a long time to come. Perhaps most importantly, this life-changing experience would not have been possible at all without the help of the Wellman Hill Political Science Grant.
I went abroad with the non-profit Unite for Sight to Dhenkanal, India to work at the Kalinga Eye Hospital and Research Center. KEHRC sets up free eye clinics in the most rural parts of the state. KEHRC would have volunteers go to remote areas of Orissa and set up clinics in abandoned warehouses, empty schools, and any shaded area that had a fan. As a volunteer, I would be in charge of helping run tests from blood pressure, to intraocular pressure, to blood glucose levels. For those patients who were diagnosed to have cataracts, they were brought back to the base hospital and provided free pre-op, post- op, lodging, food, and surgeries. I was able to scrub in on the surgeries and was also allowed to be in charge of the pre-op and post-op vitals. Aside from the surgical procedures, I helped distribute eye glasses by providing free eye exams using a Snell chart. While these were the duties of the volunteers, I started some different initiatives; given that the Wellman Hill Grant is given for social change for those underserved, there was much work to be done. I started an English class for the paramedic staff so that they would better be able to communicate with other health care professionals who would be coming from the United States. Given that English is the language of health care, it is important for the paramedics to be able to communicate the cultural barriers that might stand in the way of implementing health care policies changes. The second thing that I saw was that the patients were detached from the process. While here in the US, we often take responsibility for our health and take the initiative to see physicians as a result of our education and public health initiatives that keep us informed, in developing nations education and public health are sectors that are virtually non-existent. To that end, I designed a public health project for the children who are screened. KEHRC sees something close to 75,000 children each year. I created a care package which contained educational coloring pamphlets (with messages like read with proper light, see a physician, avoid rubbing eyes if exposed to chemicals, etc), crayons, eye patches, plastic eyeballs, and a flashlight. While most of these are supposed to be for fun, I believe that educationally, these tools are viable for spurring discussions in the local villages, which may be the only way to educate the population. For elders, I created a poster on safety and nutritional actions that can be taken by the patients to help themselves. While the patients are waiting for the bus to take them from the eye camp back to the base hospital, they would be given a quick five minute lecture by the paramedics in the native language to educate the patients. In order to test for competency, the patients were required put a thump-print next to their name on the registration table because nearly all of them didn’t know what their last name was or how to write.
With close 60% of the population below the poverty line, I saw a whole new side to health care that most only get to read about. While there was no running water, electricity, and close to 110 degree heat waves for the entire time I was in India, I can unequivocally say that this was the most impactful experience of my life. While helping the physicians screen the patients and helping diagnose the various eye diseases from conjunctivitis, amblyopia, cataracts, and glaucoma, I saw the vast differences between the US health care system and international health care systems in access to care and education of populations. Here it would be considered out of the norm to have never seen an eye doctor in 60 years, yet there physicians are often seen as part of a witch craft like culture that only serves to take eyes out of the patients and sell them. The lack of comprehensive policies in combination with structural, cultural, and infrastructural barriers, makes the situation there bleak. With the help of organizations like Unite for Sight, ORBIS International, and funding by specialized UN projects, Orissa is starting to see some changes in health care. While paying patients are given the same care, it is the non-profit work that this hospital does that has left an impression. There are no words to describe how it feels to see the first patient go through the process and have his or her sight restored. Yet, that indescribable feeling still remains with me even as I write this. It goes without saying that I am eternally grateful to the KEHRC, Unite for Sight, and Elizabeth Hill for giving me such a wonderful opportunity, which I would have normally not had. Performing over 5,000 cataract surgeries a year, this hospital is the first to make outreach and eliminating needless blindness a priority and for that we are inspired by their vision and dedication to the public. I have seen firsthand that every person has the ability to impact and change the lives of many, as each of the people here are doing daily. Yet, they have such a sense of humility and sincerity. It’s truly refreshing to see altruism at its best.
I believe that service is good for the soul. The work done by both Unite for Sight and KEHRC is remarkable and I hope will continue for a long time to come. I left with a new faith in humanity because of how everyone on every level has cared for each patient. No one single person was more important than any other and everyone took responsibility for even the slightest tasks that were to be completed. The work done by the organization is truly visionary and I am honored to have been part of it. As far as my future goals, this experience has led me to believe that health policies and public health education is the field that I would love to make contributions to. Until this summer, I was really not sure what I wanted to do or where I wanted to go. I cannot thank Ms. Hill enough for opening my eyes to the plight of access to health care and equality in health care distribution in developing nations. Even after coming back from Orissa, I am still working to continue implementing my projects and get funding for creating future projects as well. As a result of the opportunity this grant gave me, I filmed for CNN International as part of the segment “Be The Change,” which will be aired sometime next month and am presenting at the 2008 Global Health Conference at Yale on entrepreneurial volunteering. Needless to say, I never knew that I would have such an incredibly revolutionary summer that would open multiple doors for me when I applied. I can saw without a doubt that this grant has been the first stepping stone to what I hope will be a bright future for me in health politics.