Reflections on Volunteering Abroad in Patna, India

By Kirti Kewalramani
Northeastern University
Global Impact Fellow

There are so many wonderful things that I can say about my experiences with Unite For Sight and the time I spent in Patna, India. The impact that these people have made on my life will never leave, and there will always be a soft spot in my heart for this city.

My typical day began with tea and biscuits. Dr. Renu Sinha and Dr. Ajit Sinha were always up in the morning and had tea with us. My fellow volunteer Katie and I really enjoyed their company. They insisted we call them grandpa and grandma. We were more than comfortable in the Sinha’s home, as they took great care of us and always made sure we had everything needed.  After our morning tea, we would proceed to break feast, which usually consisted of some fruits and eggs. The authentic Indian food was reserved for lunch and dinner. Their housemaid was very sweet and did everything she could to make things just right. Then, we would sit in their tiny blue car, and their driver would take us to the institute. He took us out if time permitted, and even went back to get my water bottle the day I forgot it at the Sinha’s home!

Once we got to the clinic, we started helping out with patients right away. Like a quick snap, our blissful morning became a busy waiting room packed with patients staring at the TV. The exam room was just as packed as well. At least three optometrists would be examining patients at the same time, and our job was to take patient history, measure their vitals, and conduct a vision test and color-blind test. The optometrists of the A.B. Eye Staff calculated their refraction. After, the patients went on to Dr. Sinha’s office to get their detailed examination. From about 9am to 3pm straight, we were helping patients. Ideally, surgeries started at 4pm and we would grab a quick lunch before proceeding to the operation room to observe. However, there were many days where there were just too many patients and we had very little time.

Watching Dr. Sinha perform those surgeries was an amazing experience. For the first two weeks, we were instructed to strictly observe the screen from which we could see the eye being operated on. We scrubbed up and sat down on the bench with pen and paper handy. The last week is when we got to stand next to Dr. Sinha. I had one day where we were in surgery for three hours during the eye camp. My legs still hurt thinking about it.

After surgery, we headed over to the charity clinics. Mondays it was Red Cross, Tuesdays it was Danapur, Wednesdays it was Lodipur, and Thursdays it was Patna City. To me, these trips were the most significant part of the experience. Our main job at these clinics was to distribute eyeglasses prescribed by the local eye doctors to the patients. Since I was conducting my research survey, I spent most of my time interviewing patients. The survey actually made my experience more memorable. At least once a day, a patient would tell me about his/her troubles and how he/she did not have the money to solve them. Patients would talk about their fear and say things like, “how is a farmer like me supposed to know what a cataract is? I am uneducated remember!” It was sad to hear some of these things. I just could not comprehend as to why some of the patients felt so unconfident about themselves, because they have more strength than most people I know could gather in a lifetime. One of the patients we encountered at the Red Cross was blind in the left eye, yet still cared for two kids! For this particular patient, Dr. Satyajit instructed us to stay with him as he interviewed her. We found out that that the woman had been through surgery at a government hospital and was not taken care of properly. As a result, the woman needed medication, but did not have the means to obtain it. Katie, Dr. Satyajit, and I discussed her situation more on the drive back. He said, “In about 2 hours, we will not even remember the patient’s face. In about 20 days, we will not even remember her pain and anything else about her features. But for the rest of her life, this patient will suffer and we will not even know it. Every night, we really need to be thankful for what we have. We’re lucky, remember that!”

Finally, what I did not expect was the large amount of interaction with the staff. I had never intended on making life long friendships, but it happened. I guess it was foolish of me to think that the experience was just going to be work. For one thing, my fellow global impact fellow Katie ended up becoming one of the best friends I have ever had. She is so sweet, nice, charming, and just an amazing person. She really has a beautiful soul and I could not even imagine going on the trip with anyone else. We spent many nights helping her learn Hindi, gossiping about boys, and talking about the different cultural customs in both countries. Eyes as pure as hers can only see good. She was able to point out so many things I had never noticed before, and because of her I became very proud of my country, India. Culturally, you can never understand all of India and there will always be something to learn. As far as life goes, I don’t think that I will ever stop growing up.