Hello and welcome to Smiles from India! This blog is about my gap year (between high school and college) as I live in Guwahati, Assam, India. I am working for Operation Smile (www.operationsmile.org), which is a non-profit organization that repairs cleft lips and cleft palates. I am also helping the rest of the community working with the Pratyasha Foundation (http://www.facebook.com/pratyashafoundation). Enjoy and keep smiling!
Tuesday, October 2, 2012
Hello from Guwahati!
I am just returned from my mission in Silchar which was a really hot, smelly, rewarding, fun, beautiful, eye-opening experience. Silchar is a 45-minute flight from Guwahati. It is in the Cachar district, south of Guwahati, and has a population is 228,985 people. People there speak Bengali, not Hindi. Although the center of town looks very similar to Guwahati, Silchar was much greener than Guwahati. Because it is more isolated and rural, there are tea plantations and rice plantations everywhere.
Rice fields for miles
Our trip—I was joined by nurses and doctors from the Op Smile Guwahati hospital—kicked off with a roller coaster plane ride through a monsoon. The Silchar airport was 45 minutes away from the hotel, and we drove on some seriously bumpy roads to get to the hotel (another roller coaster ride… talk about motion sickness…), which was smack dab in the middle of town. In spite of the maniacal driver, the drive to the hotel was absolutely beautiful. In between the hills were nestled gorgeous fields of tea and rice. Brightly clothed women and strong men were scattered throughout the fields plucking tea leaves and wading through the rice water.
Let’s talk about being stared at. You think no Caucasians come to Guwahati? Ya, well NOOOO Caucasians come to Silchar, AT ALL. We might have been the first in ten years or more. On the first day, I was hungry because I had not eaten lunch so I went to the hotel’s restaurant. Because it was in the middle of the afternoon, the place was empty. When I walked in waiters jumped out of their outfits they were so surprised to see me. The whole week there was a lot of pointing and staring at our group.
The mission team stayed at three different hotels. I stayed at the Cachar club, which had a nice restaurant and a nice Polo Bar. The British invented the game of polo in Silchar. That probably happened because they were so bored. There's not much to Silchar. The hotel itself, which was built in 1897, was very nice, in fact, shockingly nice. There were framed pictures about the invention of polo in the lobby. Every night, the team had dinner at this hotel. They made some delicious Indian food!
My roommate, Archna, was the Operation Smile India program coordinator. Not only was she extremely nice, but it was very cool to stay with her because I got to see what happens behind the scenes of a medical mission and all of the work that goes into it.
And one more thing: It was so hot three members of our team ended up having to get IV's because of dehydration. I would up with a heat rash, head-to-toe. Temperatures were near 100 with humidity in the 90s.
Day 2 (Thursday, Sept. 20):
After our travel day, Thursday was screening day. That is when patients who want surgery go through the screening process (give us their personal information, see the plastic surgeon, talk to the anesthesiologist, etc.). We were not expecting to screen many people because Thursday was when the WHOLE country of India had planned a strike to protest rising costs. Although bad for the economy, everybody stays home for the strike and all the shops are closed and there are no cars on the streets. (Upside: no honking). We had security guards with us all day but the strike never got violent, nor does it really ever. Despite the strike, turns out we had a great turnout! We screened 115 people.
During this long, hot day, I sat towards the back of the screening room and was handed all the patient’s completed medical records (meaning 115) and plugged them into the computer. I had a fabulous seat— right next to a “toilet,” and not just any toilet, but a horrifying Indian toilet. I am not quite sure even what to call it. I won’t go into to detail but it was by far the worst bathroom I have encountered. Staff asked repeatedly to clean the thing but they kept being told, “We are out of water.” I had a great time as I watched our team walk in and walk right back out. Everybody’s reactions were hilarious; I wish I had videotaped it because I laughed each and every minute of screening day.
Also during screening day and for the rest of the whole mission I worked with a guy who has been on 35 missions doing patient records. Wow! Rich Gangwish is his name, and he is from Kentucky so we had lots in common.
On screening day, a 24-day-old baby came in. It was so malnourished that it was about to die and could barely breathe. It had a cleft lip and cleft palette but we couldn't take care of it because his body was so malnourished. The pediatrician rushed the baby over to the emergency room on the other side of the hospital to try and help guide the parents to saving their child. The translator explained everything to the parents. Anyway long story short... the parents walked out of the hospital with the baby. They wouldn’t listen to the pediatrician that their baby was about to die because (we are guessing) they thought it was too much of a hassle to have to save a baby with a cleft lip and cleft palette. This happens a lot and is way too sad for words.
Interesting facts I noticed on the patient records:
1. A question on the patient records form has them state the reason for the patient’s deformity. The #1 reason put on the patient records by far is “solar eclipse cursing God.” Indians are big believers in astrology and keep plugged in as to what is going on in the sky. Here, whenever you pick a day to do something, you must pick a date in which good things are happening astrologically.
2. Also on the patient records you must put your birthday and age. 95% of the patients had a birthday on January 1s. Meaning they do not know their birthday so they just put 1/1/year. Half of the time their birthdays and ages matched up. The other half of the time they did not match up, but they were close.
3. You also have to put how many siblings you have on the patient records. On Thursday we screened 115 people. I think 5 of them were very young and were single children. The rest of the patients had like 5-10 siblings. It explains India’s big population.
4. Another interesting demographic was that the age differences in the marriages were quite large. It was also shocking how many women were literate while their husbands were illiterate.
My life for two weeks: patient records
Day 3 (Friday, Sept. 21):
This was our day off —the day between screening and surgery. Our mission staffers staying in my hotel (7 Swedish people, one person from Singapore, one person from Belgium, one person from India, and me) ate a late breakfast and we wandered around Silchar. We made an adventure of going to a temple in the countryside that is associated with a private school. We got to see the school and the kids and the teachers. I signed many autographs for the kids (yup) and took many pictures with the teachers.
The teachers were so young and beautiful and proud. They kept asking what the school was like compared to our schools. The kids were a little shy but nevertheless they were so excited to see us. They teach English at the school and the kids definitely knew English. Very impressive. They were so welcoming and always asked if we needed anything. We were far away from the city so people were definitely pointing at us as we walked back to the car.
The school teachers and the school.
The beautiful school children
Then we drove through a lot of tea plantations and rice farms. It was amazing. So many women work, which seems to be different than Guwahati. The women in Silchar are strong and do some intense labor.
One of the many green tea plantations in Silchar
At the end of the day three of the Swedish women and I went shopping. I wanted to find a bed cover and was successful. The bed cover ($10 U.S.) is blue and white and has a flower design on it.
Day 4 (Saturday, Sept. 22):
The first day of surgery! We finished 17 surgeries and screened 60 more patients and sweated gallons and gallons of sweat.
During surgery week, my location was right in the middle of everything. It was really great as I could watch the patients go into "child life" where they get to play and be prepared for the surgery they will have. Then I could see the patients being taken into surgery. I could see the patients come out of surgery and go into the recovery room and from the recovery room go into the post op ward. All the patients’ families who were waiting to be screened or waiting for a surgery to end sat in the big “lobby.” It was the happening place.
Day 5 (Sunday, Sept. 23):
21 surgeries and 25 more patients screened.
Today we screened two girls who had severe burns. Unfortunately we could not help them on this mission but explained they could come to Guwahati or to Calcutta, where Op Smile has a burn care center. All of the transportation and medical bills will be paid by Operation Smile India.
One of the girls, Abida Begum, ended up staying in the burn unit in this hospital, which you pass by when walking to the post op ward. I decided to stop by and visit her. She is a 20-year-old female whose face, back, and right arm were completely burned. The burn unit is an extremely brutal room. The smell of burned skin is strong, there are women completely wrapped in gauze just lying on the beds, and often blood curdling screams can be heard from the burn unit. Contractors, which Operation Smile fixes a lot, are caused by not moving burned parts of your body. The problem is that because burns are so painful, no one wants to move their burned body.
Abida was so sweet, and we began trying very hard to send her to Calcutta. I stopped by everyday of the mission to say hello to her. Although she cannot move her mouth because it is frozen from contractors, you could tell that she was trying to smile from seeing me. Everyday she got less and less shy towards me and when saying goodbye to her, she finally gave me a hug.
Another patient in the burn unit who wanted her picture too!
Day 6 (Monday, Sept. 24):
Driving in Silchar is way crazier than Guwahati, if that is even possible. I happened to get in the car of an extremely crazy driver. I was sitting next to this wonderfully nice Swedish nurse. The minute he got in the car she said, “All I can do is close my eyes, and think of the beach.” And that she did. She never opened her eyes from the moment he pressed the pedal until we got to the hospital. She was the smart one in the car. As another Swedish nurse later explained, “All you can do is hope that it isn't your time.” They were so funny about it. I don’t usually get scared about this stuff but the driver on this day honestly either had a plane to catch, or wanted to be on the movie “Fast and Furious.” He was easily going 80 mph and would slam on the brakes in like one second. Telling him to slow down went in one ear and out the other.
There are adorable kids everyday but today, I noticed a little boy (who was maybe 4 years old). He was waiting to be taken to the shelter to spend the night as he waited for his surgery day. (He had a growth below his nose). He literally walked over to me behind my table and just wanted to get in my lap. So there he sat for like 30 minutes in my lap as I worked. It was so cute and heartwarming.
Day 7 (Tuesday, Sept. 25):
21 surgeries! A regular surgery day filled with hot weather.
Day 8 (Wednesday, Sept. 26):
Today I went to an orphanage with the student team. It was a Christian organization that had an elderly home, a mentally disabled home, and an orphanage. The space seemed well taken care of. The orphanage had kids of all ages and they were so adorable and loving. The older girl orphans take care of all the little ones so they are very busy. Some of the orphans are mentally disabled. I was shocked to see two kids without eyeballs and that was hard to watch.
I held this 3 month old baby the whole time, while playing with the other kids and talking to the girls who are constantly taking care of the chaotic space filled with energetic kids. Our student team brought lots of toys for the kids. I passed out pencils and pens and notebooks and nail polish to the older girls. They were so grateful and surprised to get such gifts. There was also a sack of bouncy balls that I gave to the older girls. It put some things in perspective for me because girls my age were getting soooo excited about bouncy balls and colorful pencils.
They got their cars!
The girl caretakers.
Around 5:30 tonight I walked to the post operation ward to write down details of the patients’ medical procedures. As I said, to get to post op you have to go past the burn unit. I turned left out of Op Smile’s area and started walking on the bridge that connects the hallway with the burn unit, post op ward, and other hospital rooms. All of a sudden, this family walks out of the burn unit just as I am walking on the short bridge and starts falling to the ground, flailing their bodies, SCREAMING SCREAMING SCREAMING bloody murder. One of the burn patients had just died and the family had obviously just found out. It was so frightening that I just stood there not knowing how to get past the scene. A security guard saw my worried face and generously walked me through the chaotic scene. I think I know which woman it was from walking through the burn unit earlier in the week. She is 22 and had gauze literally from head to toe.
The thing with Hinduism is that you can't touch a dead body for six hours after the person has died. So a dead body must sit on a hospital bed, burned to death, for at least six hours. So what happened was, to the right of the corpse was another severely burned patient who was 10 years old and trying to stay alive, and to her left was another severely burned patient who was 16 years old trying to stay alive. How would you like to have a dead patient who was burned like you, next to your bed?
Day 9 (Thursday, Sept. 27):
99 surgeries total!
Today was a half-day of surgery. We had 6 cases. They were such great cases to finish up with because the kids were so happy and always smiled. After those surgeries, we cleaned up and packed up everything.
3 of the last 5 patients.
That night was the final party. We danced, ate good food, and celebrated the great week that we had. I wore my sari and danced so much to some goooood Indian music. It was a great day!
My new friend Garima! She was the dentist on the mission.
Some new friends and our saris!
All the student volunteers and me after dancing all night!
I am sorry this post is so long but I had so much to tell from the mission! Enjoy enjoy!
Sending smiles from India,
All of the medical supplies.
I love this baby.
I miss this cute girl! She had a tongue tie.
The "pepto bismol" hopsital
The best picture taken the whole mission by a team member.