Dear friends, my trip to India has been most memorable and unforgettable. Upon completion of my experience as a Unite For Sight volunteer at Kalinga Eye Hospital in India, the later half of my internship consists of creating a video film that captures the essence of volunteering at Kalinga Eye Hospital for my organization. I have been meeting with my faculty advisor, professor Laura Lorenz, to discuss how to make a compelling, powerful film to best describe my experience in India. I am currently developing a story board to effectively share my thoughts, and I just wanted to share a few memoirs that refreshed my memory through the raw footages.
As a Unite For Sight volunteer, one of my tasks is to observe cataract surgeries that my organization has sponsored through outreach camps. Inside the operating theatre, there are numerous activities that take place prior to the surgeries. Essentially, the camp patients are screened for free cataract surgeries at these camps and then are brought back to the hospital on the bus (under the sizzling weather and 3-hour long ride). After an hour of settling in, the female paramedics escort the camp patients to wait in line and perform local anesthesia on their eyes. Unlike the paying patients however, the camp’s patients do not receive pre-operative counseling due to the time constraint and therefore, are often very frightened by the surgeries themselves. Although everyone undergoes the cataract surgery and understands the sight-opening results of the sponsored surgeries, very little patients actually understand the details regarding the operation and what kind of processes are being done to their eyes. With little comprehension and almost no prior knowledge or experience with this type of surgery (or the eye hospitals in general), many patients, the majority of which are elderly, tremble in fear and desperately pray to their gods before the surgery.
With many patients to receive cataract surgeries in one day, the paramedics usually direct one or two patients to sit along the wall inside the operating room. Could you picture yourself, an elderly woman who has received very little education and is about to receive the first cataract surgery, sitting right across from the operating table, on which a patient is strapped down? Although one cannot see the details of the surgery from where patients would be sitting, this view seems to usually startle the patients even more, as they begin to frantically pray or completely freeze. Watching the patients and seemingly clueless paramedics and surgeons, I realized that I was experiencing a culture shock that I did not anticipate: compared to the “customer-is-king” mentality of the United States, such is not the norm at the hospitals in India. The situation also heightened the disparity between the paying and nonpaying patients, as the paying patients not only received higher quality operations, but also had gone through preoperative and post-operative counseling. Not knowing how to react, for the remainder of my first operation observation I remained silent. I tried to think about how to communicate to my paramedic friends the idea of why the hospital should try to make the camp patients feel comfortable with not only the surgery, but also with health care and hospitals in general.
One day, I asked a paramedic working in the OR how to say ‘everything will be okay’ in Oriya. After learning how to pronounce the phrase correctly, I held the hands of a trembling elderly patient and told her the words: ‘Sabuthik Acchi.’ However, the outcome was not what I had expected (the warm and fuzzy kind), because the patient was not able to hear me with the anesthesia and cotton swabs in her ears. And even if they heard me, I could not understand what they were saying in response to my encouragement. Learning that this was a job for the paramedics who speak the native language, I gave a powerpoint presentation regarding patient treatment that emphasized patient comfort, satisfaction, and future recommendations to other friends and family. With the help of the senior paramedic, Shanti, the words of my presentation were translated so that all paramedics could understand and discuss their perspectives, and we had lots of fun as I acted out the role of an elderly woman in the OR during the role simulation. And I was tremendously moved when during the next surgery observation, I noticed the loving, caring side of the paramedics when they directed the patients to the operation room.
I am writing about this experience because it has taught me a few things about volunteering overseas: first of all, there are still some things that you can feel past the language barrier, that make volunteering in foreign countries so heartwarming and compelling. I could never forget the smiles that I saw after the surgery and the gentle acknowledgement of the patients when they recognized me as a hospital volunteer. I could never forget the stories they shared with me during the interview, such as their fears of surgery, what they want to see the most when their sights are restored, the hopes upon regaining the control of their own lives, and the financial struggles that they will have to overcome for their spouse and family. But instead of focusing this post on what I did or what I have received out of the volunteering, I want to highlight how humbling it is to be a volunteer who can do very little on her own, but with the help of others and collaboration can achieve a lot for the community. There was nothing significant that I was able to do in the hospital setting where I lacked the technical expertise, the medical knowledge, and the ability to directly communicate with patients. I worked as the active observer. What I had hoped to do, I can only so do with the help of hospital staff and paramedics, and even so after spending a small amount of time with them, I will never know if my efforts were long-lasting. It is rather a privilege that they take the time to understand where I am from and listen to what I have to say, because I am a foreigner unaccustomed to their local traditions and dynamics. And I believe that the most important task of volunteering overseas is to respect the local customs and cultures and let them be the protagonists of their community. I am writing to describe my journey as I have seen, but this is really my take on the story of the Oriya people and how the Kalinga Eye Hospital aspires to provide affordable eye healthcare to the poor and neglected in the rural state of India. I will continue to play the role of a supporter and will share their perspectives and passions with my local people as they did with mine. With this thought in mind, I hope to amplify their humanitarian efforts of Kalinga Eye Hospital and Unite For Sight, and stimulate my peers to consider becoming part of this movement through my story and the resultant video film.
If anyone is curious about a video film taken by a previous Unite For Sight volunteer about Kalinga Eye Hospital paramedics, please click here. Also, please click here if you are interested in learning more about volunteering as a Unite For Sight Volunteer at Kalinga Eye Hospital. Thank you for reading!
– Gloria Park ’13