Volunteering in Patna: Blog by Brayden and Laura Lundquist
You want our first impressions of India? India is INCREDIBLE (no we didn't steal that slogan from their tourism campaign, even though that's what it is ha ha). Wow, what an amazing 33 hour journey from North Salt Lake, Utah to Patna Bihar, India.
Right now it's about 5 minutes to 5 o'clock a.m. in India. We were so very tired last night that we went straight to bed (about 8:30 pm) after our rotation at the hospital and dinner. Being that Laura and I rarely get a good 8 hours of sleep a night, we both started tossing and turning this morning at 2:00 and 3:00, and finally 4:30 am. Now that we are up, we have time to finally articulate our feelings and impressions of India and what has happened so far.
After a long sleepless flight from Munich Germany into New Delhi, we were awoken by a beautiful sunrise over India. I know that this sounds corny, but the sunrise really seemed enchanted like all the movies portray in India. A kind of ancient feel, full of culture, history, and curry! No joke, when we de-boarded from the airplane, a smell of Indian spices was first to greet us. It is quite humid, not as hot as it will get in July, but as we were descending from 37,000 ft, it was already 60+ degress at 15,000 ft. That is pretty hot that high at 6:00 am. Unfortunately we were unable to sit together on the 7.5 hour flight to Delhi because of a rather rude gentleman that Laura had to sit by. Brayden's neighbor was friendly enough but his friend who sat the the adjacent row how was unwilling to accommodate a young married couple sitting together and taking a prized window seat, rather slept on 3 un-occupied for the entire flight. All the while, Laura had to juggle her rude neighbor who wasn't shy about space and even put his dinner impatiently in the isle for the stewardess to step in so that he could watch a movie on his laptop. Nevertheless, Brayden and Laura insisted on holding hands behind the seat through the night.
Once landed in India, the airport was streaming Indian music. We felt like we were in a movie. We headed for customs where we were greeted by two Indian customs agents. Laura's custom's agent was very friendly and even joked about her first and last name. He was unable to pronounce Lundquist. She didn't blame him, it is very different for them here, but she will be the first to admit that we are unable to pronounce their names yet! Brayden's welcome on the other hand was different. As he walked up to the custom's agent, the agent just extended his hand for the passport and declarations form. He never look at Brayden, only moved very slowly and look off into the distance. After about 1 minute of silence and a swipe of the passport into the computer, he and Laura were back together.
We collected our suitcases full of glasses and our much anticipated bag of clothes (we really didn't want to lose any luggage especially after flying in the same clothes for over 33 hours). We were blessed to have received all of our luggage in one piece. Luckily we had some foresight from Dr. Sinha. He instructed us to use an inter-terminal shuttle to get us to our domestic flight to Patna later that day. If you've ever watched The Amazing Race when the team arrive in India, there are HUNDREDS of taxi drivers and bike drivers who fight for your business. All we had to do was go into and "exclusive" waiting area for a shuttle. We were greeted by men dressed in jungle army attire and also sand army attire holding AK-47s. We didn't know if we were supposed to feel intimidated or protected. Anyway, we were able to get our luggage and two seats on a crazy 20 minute shuttle ride through the taxiways of the New Delhi Airport. It is a HUGE airport. There are terminals everywhere. It almost seems as though instead of re-modeling an old terminal, a new terminal is built in a new area. There are many airport workers walking o the taxiways and roadways and the bus drivers do not hesitate to drive quickly and honk at everyone!
We made it to our Jet Airways terminal and were welcomed into a beautiful newly finished terminal. Our luggage was checked in and we sat together for 3 hours for our next flight. This beautiful terminal had the nicest restrooms that we have ever had the privilege of using. They smelled like incense and were cleaned after each use by a bathroom attendant. Once situated in the waiting area, we were both so tired but unable to sleep. We lost our headphone splicer on the Munich to Delhi flight so we had to share one set of headphones to listen to so good 'ol Brayd and Lu i-pod mix from the states. Our flight was finally called and we left a terminal with a mix of different nationalities to Brayden and Laura being the only white American travelers to Patna. Everyone is very nice. We are still trying to understand the local customs and are more than willing to wait and watch how things are done. Our flight to Patna was on a brand new 737-300 and the seats were to die for. We slept like babies for the next hour and a half. We flew over Patna and in contrast to the very green Delhi, Patna is very dry. A windy Ganges river wound its way around a the city and as we de-boarded, we were welcomed to a very hot sunny day on the black tarmac.
Once our baggage was claimed, we exited the baggage area and were greeted by HUNDREDS of people. It was very loud and busy. Luckily, we were greeted from an AB Eye Institute driver who had a sign with our names on it. We steered through a maze of people and made our way to a very nice car. Our driver did not hesitate to help us load our bags and get us on our way. We were then introduced to driving in India. People are EVERYWHERE! The drivers look as though they are going to crash into everything, but it is almost as if the city is choreographed! There are never any collisions. As we left the airport, we passed men riding elephants in the street, Cows pulling carts. Buggy's pulled by bicycles, and 3 wheeled open air vans. Everyone honks their horns and rides the bumpers of the adjacent vehicles. There is no way that either of us would ever be able to navigate our way through an Indian city!
There is a lot of poverty everywhere. We arrived at the Sinha home. It is gated and once inside, it is hard to imagine the world outside the walls! We were warmly greeted by Mrs. Dr. Sinha MD (the mother of Dr. Satyajit Sinha who we are working with directly) who was so gracious! She loves her family so much and we were very interested to learn about their successes. We spent some time with her in her open air living room full of family treasures and statues of their religion and beautiful stained glass windows. She told us to call her grandma. We were served a wonderful tasting toast with a sweet and spicy curry butter. We ate dried fruity and nuts and drank water and cola. One thing that impacted us both right from the start with grandma is a comment that she made. While they toured the states many years back, she remarked that she would never want to live in the states where we do. She talked about how she loves her home in India and feels a responsibility to serve her people. She is a gynecologist and a local professor at the University. After such a quick transition from Germany to the poverty in India, we were given a reality check as to how blessed we are in the states. Of course Laura and Brayden have both lived in poverty around the world before, but it is always such a big reminder when you return. We really respected her for that. She then asked us about our schooling and was very surprised that we were married (we look so young) and even more surprised that we were the SAME AGE! She looked at Brayden and told him that if we were the same age then Laura was in charge! ha ha. Next, she showed us to our room. A lovely blue room with a soft bed, A/C (I don't think that any other room in their house has it, they are so nice!), satelite t.v., and a refrigerator full of cold bottled water.
We changed into our hospital attire and our driver then sped us off to the AB Eye Institute. At first, the staff didn't know where they were supposed to take us, but we soon found ourselves in a charity clinic several buildings down from the central hospital. We met an optometrist (we can't remember his name because he said it so quickly and we didn't get a chance to write it down) and worked with him for a while. All of the exams were done in a red colored room. There was a small table, a fan, and a light hanging from the ceiling. Outside, families and other patients waited. The tools of the trade were trial lenses and a set of specticles that hold each lens as the doctor corrects one eye at a time. Most of us in the states are used to a phoropter that is put in front of our eyes and we call out the letters and tell the doctor if 1 or 2 is better. Here, each patient wears glasses and the doctor puts lenses in one at a time to check the vision. All of the exams were done in Hindi (wish we had learnt it before we arrived!) Because Brayden already works in the field, it wasn't too hard to understand what they were talking about. Instead of letters, sometimes the doctors check patients with circles with an open end pointing in different directions. The optometrist that we were working with asked us about our impressions of India. He laughed when we told him that it was beautiful here and that we really loved it. He asked us what we loved about it. We replied that we were very impressed by the close family connections that Indians have. He was surprised by our answer but said that it was a very good one. He too was very surprised that we were married and especially that we were the same age. He asked us what the divorce rate was in the US and we told him that it was more than 50%. He told us that in India it is less than 10% and that husbands and wives are very faithful to each other. Laura told him that we were planning on being together forever. He told her that she couldn't make that decision alone, that we must make it together. A true and insightful though that a lot of couples could use in the states, but luckily Brayd and Lu love each other so much and that's the way it's gonna stay!
Once the charity clinic closed, we headed back to the AB Eye Institute where we met two other optometrists. Amit and Abhishek (the head optometrist). They were both very helpful. Abhishek took us around the hospital for a tour. We saw the surgical rooms, the laser room, the ophthalmic library, and the hospital beds. Next, Abhishek helped us learn some Hindi and we started examining patients. We took medical history, blood pressure, and started visual acuity screening. Next, Brayden started data collection for his research project with Abhishek as Brayden's translator. It was a great experience.
At the end of the day, Dr. Sinha finally finished with his busy day of surgeries (he was running the whole hospital by himself because his father and wife are in Chennai India for several days. He took us back home and we ate a wonderful meal together with fresh naan, curry potatoes and vegetables. We all sat out on the porch and got better acquainted. We gave Dr. Sinha our gift, and then hit the sac. Wish us luck today. We are just about to get started for the day. We didn't want to look like tourists yesterday so we didn't take many pictures. We will work on that today and will hopefully get you a better look into Incredible India.
Day 2 in India
Grandma...or why we may return 50 pounds heavier...
About an hour after that we had a delicious breakfast of omelets, toast, papaya, apple and pomegranate with fresh made orange juice. As you can imagine, we were pretty stuffed by then, especially since neither of us usually eat breakfast! She then had us each take two sandwiches to the clinic in case we got hungry before lunch. Then for lunch we had a delicious assortment of curried vegetable dishes with rice and naan (Indian bread) Here's the funny part, she is always very concerned we have not had enough, so we end up with these massive servings! Then when we say "stop" "that's enough" or "no thank you" she will say "Okay, but just a little bit more, it is good" and give us another big serving. That was where we hit a slight roadblock, the food is delicious, but we both had a little bit of a traveler's stomach, so at lunch we both had our servings, and literally couldn't eat any more, but we had not finished our plates. At this point, Grandma Sinha became quite alarmed and had to ask if we did not like the food. Oh dear! She was also concerned to hear that we had not eaten our sandwiches! After lunch, she pulled Laura aside in private and was very concerned, asking if there was a problem with the food. Laura reassured her that the food was in fact very delicious, but she was so full that she could not take another bite, and even went so far as to tell her to feel her stomach to see how far it was sticking out. At that point, I think she was convinced. :) After we returned from the clinic, we were happy to see that there was a smaller dinner of soup and vegetables, which we were able to eat every bite of, much to the pleasure of Grandma Sinha. Today we are gearing up for some more great food, making it probably a good thing we are not here longer then we are, it is so delicious that I know we would come back two very round Lundquists. Which speaking of, the name Lundquist is very humorous to the Indians here, as are "Brayden" and "Laura." Fun to see the difference across cultures.
Everything is so pretty here, even the driveway is beautifully painted!
Day 3 in India
Due to the celebration, we were told that the clinic was supposed to be very slow today. On the contrary, we were very busy all morning in the hospital auto-refracting and checking visual acuity and patient histories. Brayd is getting better at speaking Hindi (at least phrases about medical history and visual acuity screening, haha!) There was a miscommunication about Brayden's rsearch project. His translator who is also the head optomestrist thought that data collection would only last one day. He was very busy today and was juggling pre-op screening and also cataract surgeries. rayden was unable to get any data collection done. This means that he will have to work extra hard to make up for lost time (after all, we are only in India until Monday.) After working at the clinic in the morning, we returned home for lunch. Today at lunch, we got to meet Senior Dr Sinha, who has been away on business. He is a very kind man and very interested in getting to know us. He made the comment, "When you are in our house, you are not our guests, rather, we treat you as our family." And is he right! We have been so impressed by the hospitality that has been shown to us here. We definitely would not have had the same experience if we had to stay in a hotel!
Today was probably the most eventful at the charity clinic. We went to a slum in Patna and found an empty room and men and women began to line up for quick screenings and prescriptions. On a typical outreach, we are able to help about 40-60 patients in an hour. Today we helped 200+ patients. Reading glasses were distributed, cataract screenings, and prescriptions for eye infections, watering and malnourishment were all addressed. The lines became so crowded that Dr Sinha had to push back the masses several times and finally split the groups into two lines, women saw Brayden and Dr Sinha and men saw Laura and Abishick. It was 40.5 C today (a heat wave started inPatna the day after we arrived!) and with the masses surrounding us, we were sweating bullets! Our faces were shiny and wet! We were amazed, none of the clinic staff seemed to be sweating at all. I guess that menas that we definitely came from some cold weather. It was amazing to see how grateful the people there were. When they saw us sweating, they produced a fan from somewhere adn the after some skilled messing with some wires they were able to tap into some electricity to get the fan running. Then when it began to be dark, a single lightbulb and wires were produced to get light. It was amazing to see the ingenuity of these people, they live without electricity, but were able to get it going so the eye exams could continue.
After finishing at the charity Clinic we set off for the Bihar day festival. There were so many things to see. Arts and handicraft, food from each city, dancing, sculptures from Hindu mythology adn more. We've realized that Bihar must not get a lot of tourists because people are always startled to see us. That and we have not seen a single other white person here, the closest we have seen is an albino Indian, making this quite the experience. Ablishek would tell us that all the men were asking them where we were from. People were trying to take pictures and videos on their cell phones and Dr Sinha had to keep telling them to leave us alone. Surprisingly, everyone is very respectful and we have not been mobbed, rather people just stand a few feet back and try to take pictures and every once and a while a daring person will come forward and ask where we are from. Pretty funny! We were seriously the only two white persons at the festival. It was nearly 8 pm and we headed back to the hospital for the evening appointments. We screened until 10:30 and headed home for dinner and bed. All in a days work!
The first picture is of Indian folk dancers, but it was so dusty there is was difficult to get a clear picture. Some pictures from the Bihar day festival. The clinic staff enjoyed some of the food sold there, but it was so spicy that their eyes were watering!
Day 4 in India
Anyways, so yesterday we experienced more fluid time as we arrived at the clinic around 11, and then had little to do until 1 or 2. At that point we changed into scrubs to watch cataract surgeries. Things continued a little slow as the surgical room as set up, but then suddenly everything got very busy. Dr Sinha performed an extra-capsular cataract surgery, a technique we had not seen before. It is amazing to see the tiny details and high level of skills these surgeries require. After the first surgery, Dr Sinha left, and another Doctor came in. At this point, they began doing free surgeries for poor patients. This was where it got hectic! The surgical center has two beds side by side, so while the Dr and staff were performing one surgery, they were setting up the other bed with the next patient. As soon as one surgery was over, the doctor and staff switched to the other side of the room and quickly did another surgery During this time, the first patient was switched out with a new patient, and by the time that was done, the doctor and staff were again ready to operate! It was amazing how quickly they worked, they performed 6 surgeries in 45 minutes! Wow! After the procedures, we went upstairs to watch a green laser procedure to treat diabetic retinopathy. By this time, it was after 7 pm! We went home to have lunch (!) and then returned to the clinic to complete the evening appointments. Brayden made the keen observation that many of the patients in the evening speak English, making our job simpler. Dr Sinha agreed, noting that many of the patients during the day are from villages outside Patna, while many of the evening patients are highly educated and from the city and work during the day. Last night we worked with some very friendly patients, including a family where we saw both the grandfather and granddaughter. The grandfather was well over 80 but did not look it. The people here all look very young and age very well. Something we really like about India is the strong focus on family ties. Laura read in the Hindustan newspaper yesterday about a famous Indian cricket player who is doing volunteer work in an assisted living center. When asked why he chose to volunteer with the elderly, he stated, "I am hoping that youths will see what I am doing and decide to stay with their parents instead of moving away so they can take care of them when they are old." An interesting focus, since in American culture many people move away to assert their independence, whereas in India celebrities are endorsing continuing to live with your parents to honor, respect and care for them. We have also had many discussions with Grandma Sinha where she discusses the importance of children staying with their parents. She says that younger Dr Sinha takes very good care of them, as she took good care of her children while they were young. We love the family values here, as they align with our own strong feelings towards our families.
Something that we have noticed is that although Patna is very poor, we have not seen a single beggar here! In some of our other travels sometimes it becomes difficult because we will be swarmed by people begging for money. We are not sure if it is because Patna is not a tourist destination or if there is a cultural component, but there is not a beggar to be seen. The people here are very kind and something we have loved to see is how happy they are. It was amazing in the slums to see tons of people within such small quarters, living in small shanties that did not all have roofs, however, they were laughing and playing together. The parents were caring for their children, and Laura helped many fathers who brought their children for vision screenings who had no vision problems, they just wanted to make sure they were doing all they could to take care of their children. What a wonderful people they are, it is amazing to see how happy they are with so little, we can definitely take a lesson from them!
Day 5 in India
Today was another great day in India! We are wishing it didn't have to end so soon! We had another lovely morning together, with another great breakfast (Laura got to try hot cornflakes today...what an experience!) We will take pictures of our breakfast sometime so you can see how lovely it all is. We headed to the clinic where we had another great morning of auto-refracting, screening and performing visual acuity tests. We had a poignant moment when a man brought his mother in, and hesitantly asked, "excuse me, where are you from." We told him we were from the states, after which he inquired as to why we were in Patna. When Brayden told him we were here to provide service, the man bowed and said "God bless you for your work." A special moment, as we are the ones who feel blessed to be here. We then changed into our scrubs to observe further surgeries. As you can see, even the scrubs are a little different in India, thanks Brayden for posing to demonstrate, there are two slits on each side, adding to the unique look:
Brayden is very familiar with eye physiology and different procedures as this is his passion, but for Laura, this is all very new and so interesting. Watching the surgeries has given me a whole new understanding of just how amazing the human eye is. It's incredible to see how each small part works together perfectly, and how such tiny changes can have such huge impacts. Another testament of the wonders of our human bodies, the more I come to understand it, the more incredible it is to me and testifies of a perfect creation. We have loved seeing the surgeries, and the skill it takes. These teams are so impressive, we have now witnessed the power go out during surgery several times, and they don't miss a beat, flighlights come out, a few words are exchanged and the procedure continues. Amazing.
Today was one of Brayden's favorite food days. The Sinhas prepared river fish with a wonderful spicy sauce. Brayden couldn't help but eat and eat! Dr. Satyajit Sinha left us for a business trip with his wife Dr. Pooja Sinha after lunch today. We had the privilege of spending the rest of the evening with Dr. Grandpa (Ajit) Sinha. He invited us to a Lion's Club meeting at a private club in downtown Patna. There we were very warmly received by everyone. It was such a change to be with the Lion's Club members from those who live in the rural areas. These are men and women who are doctors and professors who are adopting a village somewhere in Bihar to provide eyecare, dental care, and sanitation. We were very fortunate to attend and also see Dr. Ajit Sinha receive a very honorable gift from the Lion's Club for the services performed by he and the A. B. Eye Institute. The meeting was held in a mix of English and Hindi so we were able to follow along here and there. As we ate, waiters came around with drinks. They were Coke products (Sprite, etc.). We liked the fizzy taste of home for a moment. Next the waiters brought around samples of chicken with spicy sauces. After the meeting was adjourned, Dr. Sinha took us to meet the president of the chapter as well as many other important government officials and doctors. They were all very respectful and interested in why we were there. We could get used to feeling so important! ha ha. Finally, a large catered dinner was provided and we had more than our fair share to eat. The picture below shows us with Dr. Ajit Sinha and the President of the Lion's Club of Patlyputra. Also below, Brayden trying to smile with a stuffed face. Sorry everyone!
Saturday was another beautiful day in Patna. I don’t know if we’ve mentioned it, but Patna has been going through a heat wave this week, and it has been over 40 C every day. Laura was very happy when Brayden told her that is over 100 F…we knew it felt hot! J On Saturday, we had breakfast with Grandma and Grandpa Sinha, and then got ready to pay a visit to the blind school for girls. On the drive over, Grandpa Sinha explained that there are many schools for blind boys in Patna, however, there were not any schools for blind girls, essentially leaving them without a future. On top of all of the other charitable work the Sinha family does, they have also started this school. It was not hard to hear the pride and love in Grandpa Sinha’s voice as he talked about how much he enjoyed visiting the girls, and how accomplished they are. The school provides education until grade 10, at which point the girls can continue on their studies at University. At the school, the girls are taught to read and write Braille, speak English, and work on computers. These skills will help them gain employment and further their education, leading to successful lives amidst opposition. We were very excited to go to the school, but had no idea just how touching it would be.
Day 8: the departure home
This week has been an amazing experience for both of us. It is so hard to believe that it is coming to an end. As we went to bed last night, we both discussed the inconvenience of the airline's decision to cancel our flight at 8 pm out of Patna. The new flight has us leaving at 1:30 pm from Patna arriving at 3:00 pm for an 11 hour layover in New Delhi until 2:00 am for Germany. This means that we lose a half day of work at the AB Eye Institute. We both decided that it would be worth it to purchase tickets with another airline for a later flight so that we can both work at the hospital and reduce our layover time in Delhi. As soon as we woke up, we tried to purchase tickets online with Brayden's computer. Unfortunately the internet was down. We went for morning tea with the Sinha's and discussed our decision. They were thrilled to hear of our decision to stay longer. They saw it as a complement to them that we really enjoyed our time with them . . . and we do! Dr. Ajit Sinha arranged for a driver to take us early to the hospital to use the wireless internet there to purchase our tickets. As soon as we arrived, we fired up the internet with NO LUCK! The internet was down at the hospital too. We began to think that we weren't supposed to stay longer. Luckily, one of the staff at the hospital knew of an internet cafe close by and we ran to check our luck! YES! The internet was working great. We logged on to flykingfisher.com and found a flight out of Patna later today at 6:30 pm. We purchased our tickets with much relief and headed back home to the Sinha's for breakfast. We were treated to a wonderful breakfast once again and then took some time to pack and prepare for our flight later that day.
Dr. Ajit Sinha later called for us as it was time to head to the hospital to begin our day. Once we arrived, we were greeted by a large room full of patients in the waiting area. We quickly went into the patient screening room to get to work. We worked that morning from about 10:00 until 4:00 pm. Laura continued her work at the auto-refractor, and Brayden checked visual acuity, checked histories, and collected data for his research project with the help of Abhishek, the head optometrist. The time went so fast! Dr. Ajit Sinha called us into his office several times throughout the morning to show us different cases. One particular case was of a patient who survived a motorcycle collision. A visual field test result showed that the patient had lost vision on the sides, called bitemporal hemianopia.
This test indicated that the patient had damage to his optic nerves at the optic chiasm. Dr. Ajit Sinha then informed us that he would need to receive specific help from a specialist to see if anything could be done to treat his condition.
After a 33 hour flight back home, we made it! As soon as we arrived back home, we jumped in the shower and hit the sac! Brayden had school the following morning and worked on some homework before heading to school. It was such a contrast living in India where the sun blazed at 41 C of 105 F and to be welcomed home to 32 F and SNOW! Fortunately, jet lag has not been too much of a problem.
Brayden and Laura have been very fortunate to be able to work with Unite for Sight and the Sinha family in India. We are still interested in global health and will continue to work with Unite for Sight here in America.