Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Since we last spoke...

To continue where I left off, I have been in far South India on a mission trip. And as I said before, the area where I've been, Kerala, has almost a 100% literacy rate. Education makes a huge difference in the way village people interact with me. Typically on mission trips, many of the patients' parents are illiterate and cannot fill in the hospital enrollment forms.

Another thing that was so different about this mission was that we handled far more "Priority 4" patients, which means that they were in need of additional surgery to previously repaired cleft lips and cleft palates. In other words, these were patients whose first surgeries had not gone well. (In most cases, either the lip scar was too big or the palate had another hole in it, which is known as a "fistula.")

Far more patients in Kerala had the ability to pay for surgery. Why was that? Kerala’s economy does not have a main industry. So most people looking for large, specific industries leave Kerala. Thus, the migration rate out of Kerala is very large. That means the price of labor is much more expensive than other Indian states and the people who stay make more.

But, because of corruption, the surgeons in small places like Alleppey, the town where the mission was located, do not really know what they are doing. They overcharge for surgeries they do not know how to do, and charge extra for medical supplies and appointments. As a result, palates easily fall to pieces, and lips have massive scars.

This mission was a “local mission.” This means that the team is smaller and composed solely of volunteers from India. (The international missions bring in a team from countries around the world. Although this was a local mission, I have to say we had a few doctors and nurses from Singapore.) All told, we did 64 surgeries!

This mission was so much fun for me for a couple of reasons. First, the interaction with the patients and their families was way different than in Guwahati. They loved handing their kids over to you and they loved laughing with you and talking with you (despite not knowing the same language). They were so much fun to hang out with. I became very close to many of the families.

We were working in an incredibly nice hospital. The hospital was so supportive of the mission and by the end of the week I knew everybody who worked there. I always work closely with the nurses on the mission and I became great friends with many of them. They did not just stare at me like I was from outer space, but instead genuinely wanted to welcome me to Kerala and get to know me.

My new friends: the nurses! 
Another new friend who works at the hospital.
Kinder Hospital hosted the Op Smile mission. 

The hospital is so nice and well designed. 
The cafeteria. 
The speech therapist on the mission ran her sessions very near where I worked. Although I do not understand the local language, I could understand what was going on. The speech therapist herself was born with a cleft palate. She had her first speech therapy appointment at 13 at which time her speech therapist told her that it would not be possible for anyone to ever understand her. She proved her speech therapist wrong by practicing nearly every minute of every day and by 15 everybody could understand her.

During the speech therapy appointments, the patient is joined by their family members. These patients have had a cleft palate surgery before but need more help with speech. I would estimate that half the time, when the patient was unable to perform the speech therapy exercises, the siblings would die laughing. I got so upset; steam came out of my ears. The truth is these poor people cannot even escape shame in their own homes.

But equally true is that from the classroom to the home, some of these patients have unbelievable stories of pushing themselves through school and pursuing friendships despite their speech problems. So many of the patients came every day to see the speech therapist, and by the end of the week you could really tell a difference. If the patients keep practicing, I have no doubt that their siblings and their classmates will understand them. And then they will feel no shame.

Sending smiles from India, 

Other photos from the mission: 

Archana! Such a cutie (photo credits: Edmund Koh). 
Bye bye! She is going into the Operation Theatre all smiles.

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