Reverse culture shock and moving forward with Unite For Sight

One of my top reasons for choosing to volunteer at Kalinga Eye Hospital at Orissa was the pediatric ophthalmology services it offered. As an aspiring pediatrician, I was curious to learn more about how ophthalmology services were delivered to children, and how children and parents would evaluate the overall experience at the hospital. When I was given the tour of the hospital for the first time in India, I was surprised. Kalinga Eye Hospital had a room dedicated to children as a playing and a waiting room, yet it did not have appropriate toys or staff to work with children the room. Moreover, even when the children were sitting in the waiting area with their parents, no staff directed them to the children’s room. This underutilized room was beautifully painted in local cartoons and languages, and it had a separate door to the pediatric ophthalmologist’s office. It hosted a small plastic playground for children to go down the slide and ride the rocking horse. During my observation, however, I was baffled by how no staff took children patients to the doctor’s room through the directly connected door. Curious to understand the reasons for such underutilization of this playing room despite the high number of children patients, I’ve asked administrators, Director Samal, and paramedics. Their responses varied. The administrators were aware of the lack of attention to the children’s room, but as the hospital puts its priority on functions of the operating theatre and generation of sufficient revenue to sustain their humanitarian efforts, there was less emphasis on service quality in comparison to actual treatment. Moreover, there was no set protocol for children patients, so there was a big separation between treatment and service because it was culturally accepted that there was simply no need to incorporate service into children’s care. The paramedics explained that they simply do not have the money to staff the room and make best use of the room. So the room served as an accessory to the hospital, but not an integral part of the hospital experience for the intended user: the children.

The room is painted beautifully with local cartoons
We need new toys for children at the hospital! Exhibit A: the eyeless Mr. Rabbit

On one hot day at the hospital, I noticed two adorable boys sitting on the bench with other adults in the waiting room. Many minutes had passed, yet no one has suggested to them that they can go play in the children’s room. I nudged my dear friend and hospital paramedic, Trupti, to offer them a playing room while they waited for their turn to see the ophthalmologist. The boys lightened up at the paramedic’s good news and widened their eyes when the room light was turned on. There, my paramedic friend and I played with the children and watched the father smile at his boys’ smiles and laughter. A few paramedics passed by and watched us play with the children, and watched how happy and energetic the children were with a few toys and a simple welcoming gesture to the children’s eye care room.

A boy and his father playing in the children’s care room
A child patient at Kalinga Eye Hospital having fun while waiting
A child patient and the children’s eye care room

Watching these two children has inspired me to make another suggestion to the Kalinga Eye Hospital: why don’t we revamp the children’s room so that not only children can have a smooth, fun experience at the hospital, but can also increase patient satisfaction for both the child and the parents? Since this room has not been used for a very long time, it also motivated the paramedics to turn this place into a gem one day. After explaining my thoughts to Director Samal, he agreed to accept donations of environmentally friendly toys and story books for children from future volunteers from Unite For Sight instead of the required 600 eyeglasses (which are very difficult to fit into two suitcases along with other essential items). Moreover, a few paramedics have given me their word that with new supplies and toys, they will bring more children into this room and give them the vision that this hospital aims to provide for all generations. I left the place promising them that I will never forget about this experience at Kalinga Eye Hospital, and that I will continually serve as their ambassador in the United States and also in South Korea. I am happy to announce that I will be serving as Unite For Sight’s campus representative and am currently working to found a Unite for Sight chapter at Brandeis.

Prior to my trip to India, which would not have been possible without the generous support from World of Work, I was conflicted in choosing my career path: hospital administration/public health or becoming a doctor. I aimed to explore both aspects of health care in India, and I am so thankful for the opportunity I’ve had. I’ve conducted patient satisfaction surveys, brainstormed marketing strategies to sustain the hospital so that it can continue to provide services to the poor, and talked with the director of the hospital about health delivery and health disparities. Yet I did not feel as connected to those to whom I was reaching at outreach camps, ophthalmologist offices, and the hospital community. Encountering these children reaffirmed my decision to pursue attending medical school because I want to help children on a personal level. I’ve also developed a newfound interest in ophthalmology, because the joy and hope I witnessed when the patients restore their vision were so compelling and unforgettable.

The reverse culture shock I’ve experienced was none like any other culture shocks in the past. The average cost of cataract surgery at Kalinga Eye Hospital is $18, and it gave me a new perspective on my value system. $18 can mean a lot of things: four cups of coffee, a shirt, an eyeliner, and a surgery that saves lives. I will forever take this experience with me, and although my internship ended it really feels like a new beginning. I have a home in India to go back to one day, and it is time for me support the hospital’s initiatives and Unite For Sight’s objectives through my actions here in the states. If you would like to support me through Unite For Sight, please consider donating here, and if you would like to get more involved in other volunteer opportunities through Kalinga Eye Hospital and other sponsor organizations, please visit NYSASDRI website here . Thank you so much for reading!

-Gloria Park, ’13