My Experiences Volunteering Abroad in Patna, Bihar, India

By Leigha Winters
Stanford University Student
Global Impact Fellow

I recently returned from the experience of a lifetime: a trip to India.  During dinner one night a dining companion asked me, “how do you like our country?  How does it compare to the U.S.?”  I sat there stupidly speechless between bites because, truthfully, there was no way I could compare the two countries.  India was so completely different from my daily life in the U.S. that I felt like I was suspended in a dream world.

During my volunteer trip to India, I experienced firsthand a completely unfamiliar culture, lifestyle, and climate.  I stepped off my plane in Delhi and entered an exotic, poignant, vibrant country where extreme wealth and hospitality in homes along the streets juxtapose the extreme poverty on every street corner.  Just driving down the street, I bore witness to the innumerable facets of India: the techno-savvy businessman talking on one of his multiple cell phones; the well-dressed Indian woman in her dazzling sari sauntering off to do some shopping; the pushy street vendor lingering on the street to sell his wares; the aggressive driver navigating the frenzied traffic; the destitute child playing in the trash heap.

While all of these visions of India fascinated me, it was the last, most heart-wrenching reality of an impoverished and ailing population that inspired my trip to India.  I helped restore sight to such children and their impoverished families while working with the doctors Sinhas (Dr. Ajit Sinha, Dr. Satyajit Sinha, and Dr. Pooja Sinha) at A.B. Eye Institute in Patna, Bihar.  The Sinhas and I worked from 9am to 10pm almost six full days a week.  We saw hundreds of patients—the Sinhas saw more patients in one day than many ophthalmologists in the U.S. see in three weeks.  The Sinhas diagnosed all types of eye diseases, prescribed and distributed eyeglasses I had collected in California, and performed vision-restoring surgeries on patients who had been suffering for years.  While our job was not always easy, the results were always rewarding.  For the first time in my life, I felt like I made an immediate and meaningful impact on peoples’ lives.

Yet this medical work was only a small part of my journey through India.  Living with the Sinhas, I had the opportunity to experience what so few foreigners ever see: the traditional life of a modern Indian family.  I didn’t just travel to India, take a few pictures in front of a few historic monuments, and write off my visit as complete (although I did get to snap some pictures at the Taj Mahal!).  Instead, I got to see part of the real India; I ate traditional meals with the family and attended a Hindu wedding.  I was a minority for the first time in my life—the only white person in a sea of tanner faces.  Having traveled to a state where few foreigners visit, I was confronted daily by stares and cultural blunders.  Everyone I met, however, was more than happy to help me understand my misconceptions.  Never before have I felt so isolated yet congruently welcomed.  Like the contradictions evident in India’s very nature, I felt simultaneously productive and worthless, significant and inconsequential.  Ultimately, what I took away from this experience was so much more than just an advanced understanding of ophthalmology.

So I want to thank the organization Unite For Sight for helping get me to India. I want to thank the Sinhas for warmly accepting me into their home and work.  And I want to thank the residents of India, and Patna especially, for making my journey so magnificent.  You welcomed me into your country and allowed me a glimpse of its soul. Bohut Dhanyavad.