Reflections on Volunteering Abroad in Bihar

By Lauren Lisann
Yale University
Global Impact Fellow

I sat in my kitchen in the United States and bit into a ripe lychee; the familiar, unique sweetness propelled my mind back to the front porch of the Sinha family residence, where I first tried the fruit. As a Unite For Sight Global Impact Fellow in Patna, Bihar, I was welcomed into the home of Drs. Sinha, and volunteered at the A.B. Eye Clinic and associated charity clinics. Serving as a Global Impact Fellow in Patna, Bihar has been one of the most meaningful experiences not only of my college years, but of my entire life. As a premedical student, I have volunteered and researched in a variety of settings, but my time in Bihar stands out amongst all of these. Not only were the knowledge and awareness in health care I gained invaluable, but so was all that I learned from being immersed in life in Bihar.

I spent the first half of each day at the A.B. Eye Clinic, observing optometrists and doctors, as well as assisting in patient care. This was my first opportunity to be directly involved in a patient’s health, and I’ll never forget wrapping a blood pressure cuff around that first patient’s arm then proceeding to check his long-distance vision. I was grateful for the  responsibility and the active role I had at the clinic, although it was a challenge for me to communicate with patients verbally (the little Hindi I knew I had learned during my time in Patna). Nonetheless, I checked blood pressure and visual acuity, learned to use the autorefractor, and obtained health histories. Of course, the optometrists stood by to confirm the accuracy of the information I recorded. In this way, I learned a great deal from professionals while at the same time actively cared for patients, who crowded into the clinic in an endless queue from the minute I walked in to the minute I left for the day.

In the afternoon, I would travel with Dr. Ajit Sinha, Dr. Satyajit Sinha, or Dr. Pooja Sinha and the optometrists to a charity clinic to perform further visual acuity tests and distribute hundreds of eyeglasses, including those I had carried with me to Bihar. We were scheduled to visit a different clinic each day, and the car (or carriage) rides were exciting in themselves: my eyes were always glued to the busy streets filled with horse- and man-drawn carriages, and infinite strings of  brightly colored cars. I was at first awed by the extreme need for care; the countless numbers of patients at the A.B. Eye Clinic were multiplied at these facilities. I soon became accustomed to the demand, whether I was handing out glasses at the police headquarters or checking patients’ vision in the back room of a pharmacy. I became more comfortable in these settings, and consciously appreciated this opportunity to learn about life and healthcare in Bihar, while making even a small dent in the health of these populations.

One afternoon, instead of working at a charity clinic, I joined Dr. Ajit Sinha on a visit to Bihar Netraheen Parishad, a school for blind girls. Because many of these girls were shunned in their home environments, the school represents a refuge and a place where they are encouraged to challenge themselves to reach their full potential. I was touched by the warm smiles and cheerful demeanor of the students. The girls clearly cherished the education they received and the community they experienced at the school.

In the context of my limited Hindi, my time in Bihar accentuated the importance of nonverbal communication. I particularly recall one exchange as I was distributing eyeglasses to a crowd of policemen at the department headquarters, when a mother and her toddler came up to the table where I stood. The mother eyed me warily as her daughter and I played a game of toss with glasses wrappers back and forth across the table. Once she saw her daughter's sanguine expression, the mother smiled at me before hurrying off with her child. Experiences like this one relating to others will no doubt contribute to my ability to connect with patients in my future career as a physician.

I cannot express the value of all that I learned and experienced both in and out of the clinic. As I performed visual acuity tests on countless individuals and gave glasses to even more, these patients received improved sight while my own eyes were opened to the disparities in health care across the world, and also to the rich variation between worldwide cultures. Living with the Sinha family led to my complete immersion in daily life in Bihar, and I certainly miss the architecture I witnessed, the foods I tried, and the traditions I observed. My experience as a Global Impact Fellow in Bihar has encouraged me to continue to expand my understanding of worldwide cultures and global health care issues, and augmented my desire to remain engaged in clinical settings both at home and abroad.

A ride to a charity clinic.
On the way to a charity clinic with the optometrists.
Dr. Ajit Sinha checked prescriptions while I handed out glasses at the police station headquarters.
I observed Dr. Ajit Sinha perform eye exams at Bihar Netraheen Parishad.