My Experiences Volunteering Abroad in Bihar, India

By Emily Abrash
Stanford University Student
Global Impact Fellow

It's hard for me to condense my time in Bihar into a few paragraphs, or to single out a particular moment as most important. While in Patna, I filled a notebook with descriptions of my amazing experiences, and hardly a day goes by when I don't think of Bihar or the Sinha family.

My first visit to the charity eye clinic at Danapur would have to rank very high on the list of experiences I’ll never forget.  Danapur is a small town in a rural area, located about an hour and a half from Patna proper.  To get to the town, we had to drive through a military base, the Danapur Cantt, and while we were passing through, it began pouring down rain.  Rather than being deterred by the monsoon, Dr. Satyajit simply slowed down the car, and we followed a military truck through the torrential rain at 5mph until we reached the town.  There, it was not difficult to figure out which building the clinic was held in, as a huge crowd of people was waiting outside.  It is a remarkable experience to be watched by that many eyes, especially when they belong to people who are depending upon you and your colleagues to fix their illnesses.  The building, as it turned out, was actually a primary school; there were scribbled lessons on a chalk board in the corner, and a tattered poster of Mickey Mouse on the wall.  The Sinhas rapidly set up their equipment and began calling in patients, while I was stationed behind a patient where I had spread out the reading glasses and sunglasses I had brought with me.

Although the power failed frequently, the Sinhas were undeterred, using torches for their examinations and keeping records by candlelight after night fell. It was extraordinary to see the doctors in action, like nothing I had ever seen or would ever see in the United States.  I sat with my table of glasses next to Dr. Pooja, who very kindly took the time to explain to me what she was doing and how she was diagnosing each case.  First, each patient would be called to sit on a bench in front of the doctor, and asked about his or her complaints.  While the patient was describing these, Dr. Pooja would examine his or her eyes with a torch, then begin taking notes on a “chart” which consisted of a piece of paper with the clinic’s letterhead and address printed in Hindi and English.  Typically, it took only three to five minutes for her to record the patient’s complaints, prescribe a course of action, and explain to the patient what he or she needed to do for follow-up.  The efficiency with which the doctors saw patients, while still listening carefully to their symptoms and giving them the best possible examination with the available tools, was truly amazing.

However, what struck me equally hard was the extraordinary need of the people who came to the clinic at Danapur.  While many of the people whom we had seen at charity clinics in Patna were poor, the rural people who came to the Danapur clinic very obviously had less access to medical care and other services than their urban counterparts.  Indeed, it was the experience of seeing and interacting with these patients, of watching by candlelight as they filed by in seemingly endless procession, that indelibly stamped on my mind the necessity of contributing, through my life and work, to the rectification of such injustices.  To put it another way, Danapur was impossible to ignore.

There was nothing abstract about it.  It was the real deal, the third world pressing into my first-world mind, touching some internal spot which was the locus of dreams and career plans.  Because of the context in which I encountered the profound need of Danapur, I did not come away with a sense of hopelessness or fatalism.  Rather, I came away with the strong sense that it was necessary for me, like the Sinhas, to take active part in fixing the problems that I had seen.   Indeed, I think it is impossible to spend two weeks with the Sinha family without coming to understand that a single, motivated person is absolutely capable of changing the world.