Reflections on Volunteering Abroad in Orissa, India

By Samyuktha Balabhadra
Saint Louis University
Global Impact Fellow

I went into my first year of college with multiple interests in mind, including a curiosity for issues in global health. I knew that college was the time for me to see what I was most interested in. This would help me determine the direction that my education and career would take. It was during this time, that I sat through presentations by fellow students who had been on trips with Unite For Sight. After hearing their insight on their trips, I was convinced that there would be no better way for me to reaffirm my interest in community health than by taking a trip right into the field. So I went to Orissa, India to work as a Unite for Sight Global Impact Fellow.

During my experience, I volunteered at Kalinga Eye Hospital, located in the small, picturesque town of Dhenkanal. Kalinga Eye Hospital was the only hospital of its kind for central Orissa. The hospital worked based on the principles of Unite For Sight: sustainable healthcare. Eye care was provided to patients above the poverty line for the standard fee. Eye care to patients below the poverty line, however, was provided at no cost and sponsored by Unite For Sight.

While I was in Orissa, I was able to go on outreach trips. Volunteers, like myself, would go on outreach trips along with the team of paramedics and eye doctors. The goal of outreach is to provide eye care for the surrounding villages that would otherwise have no access to it. At the village centers, villagers were gathered, examined, and screened for cataracts and other eye disease. The patients that had cataracts would come back to spend the night and much of the next day in the hospital, until the time of their surgeries. All of their basic needs such as food and bed were provided for by the hospital.

The surgeries themselves were a highly efficient process. One staff member would help a patient complete paperwork, while a nurse would bring the patient into the prep room for localized anesthesia. Next, the patient was sent to the operating table in the operation theater. A team of assistants would prepare the patient, while the surgeon worked on a different patient at another operating table. The assistants placed a surgical cloth with a hole on the patient’s face to isolate the eye. The assistants held the patient’s eye in place with a steel instrument and sanitized the area around the eye by pouring a generous amount of sanitizing fluid. Then, they placed new, sterilized instruments onto the side table.

As the surgeon, Dr. Patra, completed his other surgery, he would pivot over to perform a surgery on the next table. Using a scalpel, he created a slit near the lens. He inserted a hook-like instrument into the slit and pulled the cloudy lens out. A nurse opened the box for the new, artifical lens. Dr. Patra used another instrument to pick this lens up and quickly insert it back into the slit. As he was performing this surgery, another patient was brought in and prepped. The cycle of prep and surgery was repeated until all of the patients had their cataracts removed.

The outpatient clinic, for the patients above the poverty line, was another excellent experience for me, since Dr. Nayak, the main ophthalmologist for the outpatient clinic, always had clear explanations for what he was doing. I got to see a variety of cases in the outpatient clinic, some of which I may not have have been able to see in the United States. Some of the conditions I saw were conjunctivitis, cataract, glaucoma, and even worms in the eye.

I also enjoyed conducting research in Dhenkanal. I worked with a student from another university, who had already completed his volunteering and data collection while there. We did a study on the influence of cultural, economic, and social factors on the interpretation of visual aids in the informed consent process for women. For this, we showed female patients some images that depicted the process of undergoing cataract surgery before the surgeries. We tried to see how the images would be interpreted. Then, we asked the patients questions from the Poverty Scorecard. We were looking for any correlation between the factors listed on the poverty scorecard and the interpretation of the images. In addition, I helped a fellow volunteer interview patients for her economics study. It was during my interactions with patients that I realized how important research is in global health. The outcomes of research projects like the ones I was involved in could help these patients.

My experience with Unite For Sight has showed me that there are many challenges in the path to making healthcare accessible to global communities. But, my experience has also taught me that it is possible to overcome these challenges. And this has ultimately helped me reaffirm my decision to become a physician. My trip has inspired me to use my newfound knowledge to serve underprivileged communities.