Letter from… Orissa

by Anisha Suterwala:

Uma, one of the nurses, hip checked me as she left the operating theater. Housed on the second floor of Kalinga Eye Hospital and Research Center, the theater was cool and bare, with a faint scent of rubbing alcohol in the air. Twin beds sat next to each other, the gap in between filled by an operating microscope. A surgeon sat at the head of the beds, as nurses like Uma brought in a train of elderly patients for cataract surgeries. Each surgery went quickly—in under eight minutes. Uma’s eyes twinkled. “You are standing for too long,” she said. “There are too many mausas and mausis today. You will not be too tired to do English in evening?” I laughed. It was true that the day’s outreach trip to the villages had brought back far more mausas, elderly patients, than usual, but I would never be too tired to teach Uma English.

The operating theater at Kalinga. (Suterwala/TYG)

I spent two weeks at the hospital as a volunteer for Unite for Sight (UFS). UFS, an NGO, funds the cataract surgeries that the hospital performs. This partnership fits into a new model of development, one created in response to criticisms that NGOs provide temporary, unsustainable fixes. A four-story hospital, KEHRC provides ophthalmological care, free and for small fees, to people in Dhenkanal, Orissa, India, and surrounding rural areas. Every few days, the hospital sends an outreach bus with nurses and an optometrist to the villages surrounding Dhenkanal. The hospital holds eye care camps, in which it screens the elderly in villages for cataracts. Those identified with cataracts are taken back to the hospital, where they undergo surgery in one eye, spend the night recovering, and are driven back to their respective villages the next morning.

My role at the hospital was an undeserved one, that of a supervisor. For purposes of accountability, one or two UFS volunteers must stand in on the operations, signing off as each occurs. I, the untrained, undergraduate volunteer, felt presumptuous acting as an overseer to a well-qualified surgeon. Unnervingly, the overwhelming attitude toward volunteers among the nurses was one of shy deference, as though we had some sort of miracle cure. I was also—to the delight of many of the nurses—the only Indian volunteer in my group, and although because of this they accepted me much more quickly than they did my conspicuously white counterparts, I also felt hyperaware of my own Americanisms. Often I would find myself looking blankly at them when they made religious or cultural references. I ate my rice with a fork.

What I did at Kalinga was not medical voluntourism; volunteers were strictly (and sensibly) not allowed to engage in any kind of medical practice. It was in a sense, however, development voluntourism. Most volunteers spent only a short amount of time at the hospital, working on largely self-designed administrative projects that rarely transferred effectively to incoming volunteers, like editing hospital literature and consolidating medical reports. I could say that because the hospital needed us only for such minor tasks, the sustainable development partnership between Unite for Sight and Kalinga has accomplished its goal of empowering the community, but I cannot help but feel that we would have been more useful if we had medical training. The lack of training meant that we made little impact on the actual patients of the hospital. They flew under our radars, coming in for surgeries, and perhaps murmuring a word or two in Oriya to us, before returning to their home villages.

Who we might have touched, I think, are the nurses. When I think of the hospital and my time there, I think mostly of Uma. I spent my evenings struggling through “learn English from Hindi” books with her, trying to improve her English. She wants to master English, which she already speaks reasonably well, so that she can become a teacher in the nearby town of Calcutta and establish a career before she marries. The caveat: Other than the volunteers who come through, she can find no one in her small town to teach her. I could help her because I speak passable Hindi. Most of the other volunteers did not. But my two weeks there were not nearly enough. KEHRC makes a lasting impact on the community in providing eye care. UFS makes a lasting impact in supporting KEHRC. But we volunteers—are we ever around long enough to make any impact at all?

Anisha Suterwala ’14 is an English major in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at anisha.suterwala@yale.edu.