Coconuts, Cataracts, and Chennai

This past summer, I participated in the UTMB Global Health Track’s summer elective program and traveled to Chennai, India to work with Unite for Sight. I spent two weeks visiting family in Bangalore, India and four weeks working with Unite for Sight organizing free vision screenings throughout the city, observing LASIK and cataract removal surgeries, and exploring the city my parents once called home.

I had been looking forward to this trip for the entirety of our last block, Neuroscience and Human Behavior (NHB). The burnout was becoming real, but the thought of boarding the airplane and traveling away from medical school/to India for a couple of months was a stronger source of energy and motivation than any drink Starbucks could ever sell.

The first two weeks were everything I wanted, and needed. I spent quality time with my grandparents and family I hadn’t seen since before starting before college, ate superrrr good food (my grandmother is literally the best cook I know), read for fun on the roof of my grandparents’ house, took daily naps on my their Diwan, and spent time outdoors admiring the various fruits, vegetables, and flowers growing in their lush garden.

A view from inside my grandparent’s garden.

Each day went by slowly, but the two weeks went by very, very quickly. Those two weeks were precious; the change from the “hustle and bustle” pace of life during school to one more relaxed and slower was much appreciated.

The next four weeks working with Unite for Sight in Chennai were valuable, challenging, and very enjoyable. I should preface this next part by saying that my parents are from Chennai and the city wasn’t exactly foreign to me. I’m South Indian, I speak Tamil (fluency and quality of said speech can be debated), and I’ve visited a few times as a child. At this point, you might be wondering why I chose to work in Chennai when neither the city nor the culture would be very new to me. To that, I say Good Job keeping up and making it this far! Read on for an explanation!

I was really torn trying to decide where to spend my “last real summer,” but in the end I chose to go to India for a few reasons. I have been interested in Global and Public Health since I was a freshman at UT Dallas and I have plans (they’re vague, but they exist) to continue Global Health practice in the future. I realized that at this current point in my medical education, I don’t have many useful or practical medical skills (I mean, I can draw blood and perform basic physical exams… kind of…does anyone really know how find the liver span?!) but beyond that, I’m kind of just a warm body. To me, the first two years of medical school are about building a solid foundation of medical knowledge, honing critical thinking skills, and creating a repertoire of good practices to draw upon in the future. I try to observe older students and experienced physicians and learn how they talk to patients, establish rapport, ask the right questions, all in an enjoyable and efficient manner. I wanted an experience that would allow me to build on those skills. I decided going to India, specifically Chennai, would be a great opportunity for me specifically, because my understanding of the culture and language would allow me to connect and work more closely with patients and medical workers. I would be able to appreciate the more subtle differences in the way medicine was practiced and apply my knowledge of both American Healthcare and culture to find ways to blend together optimal practices from both sides.

Oh, it was also a really good chance to eat more amazing food, not gonna lie.

Nom nom nom. “Mini Meals” are typical, quick lunch time meals consisting of different rices, curries, roti, and a sweet.

But, in addition to achieving most of my intended goals, I also did learn a lot of clinical and practical knowledge. Surprisingly, I also learned a lotttt about navigating cultural differences and more about my culture and heritage (shocker! Being Indian, but born and raised in America is different than being Indian and raised in India).




An arbitrary list of some things I thought were cool:

  • Hospitality
    • Everyone was SO hospitable and friendly. It’s definitely part of the culture, but interestingly, it seemed that the poorer the patients we worked with were, the more generous, talkative, and gracious they were. Many of our patients were from diverse socio-economic backgrounds and have varied access to care and varied levels of health literacy and medical knowledge, so it was an interesting “trend” I noticed.
    • Even just wandering the streets finding meals and shopping gave us ample opportunity to interact with different people. Everyone was so proud of their work and eager to share with us their history and heritage, it made connecting with people very enjoyable.
  • Learning
    • Reflecting back on my trip, I learned so much from my interactions with people, the way the other volunteers and I all reacted to and handled the consistently changing schedules, and difference in organization/planning. By the end of the month, I had perfected how to explain Cataracts to our patients, how the surgery was performed, risks and benefits, and I learned how to assess their hesitations and address their qualms (all in Tamil! Gold star for me!). I think it’s important to remember that every situation can be a learning opportunity, because there’s always new things to learn and different ways to improve.
  • Cultural Liaison
    • Out of the group of volunteers I worked with, I was the only Indian, so I became the impromptu cultural ambassador. Upon later reflection, I realized the situation was kind of similar to how a doctor might feel when talking to patients. They have all the knowledge and are responsible for figuring out a way to bridge the knowledge gap with their patients and present all sides of the information without bias. They can’t lie or make up something; the whole process highlights areas “lacking in fund of knowledge.” I realized there was a lot about India and Hinduism I didn’t know about (or well enough to confidently explain) and that there were some things I had just accepted growing up, without fully understanding. It definitely helped me pinpoint topics I needed to brush up on.
  • Taking things for granted
    • Whenever I travel, I am reminded of how fortunate I am to be able to travel (physically and financially) and how appreciative I am for what I have in life and what makes me different. I wholeheartedly enjoyed my trip, but it reminded about some things I take for granted back home: my independence and not only having my own goals and dreams, but also having the ability and opportunities (or ability to find the opportunity) to see them into fruition (s/o to my parents and the American Founding Fathers). I also take for granted the abundance of resources of all kind- simple things like Band-Aids, pencils and pens, scratch paper, plastic utensils, napkins, and more serious things like water, electricity, access to fresh and nutritious food, clean living environments, and organizations to help fill in deficiencies in the aforementioned.
  • Things I miss about India
    • I’m now more than two months into my second year of medical school and I miss so much about India. I miss my family and the quality time I spent with my grandparents. I miss the slower pace of life that gave me the time to fully focus on, appreciate, and love what I was doing. I miss walking through the busy neighborhoods and just taking in all the forms of life and activity- children playing cricket outside, vendors stationed throughout the streets shouting about their best deals, and the various aromas of delicious food wafting through the air. The other volunteers and I created a little home for ourselves and became “regulars” at quite a few restaurants. I miss walking across the street to the tea stall to enjoy a simple and sweet cup of chai or coffee.
      When your coconut is as big as your face.

      I miss the afternoon stops to get fresh coconut water when the Chennai summer heat was in full force.

I miss all of this and more, but I cherish these memories and the happiness they still bring me. I am so thankful I had the chance to travel to India (THANKS, UTMB). I had an amazing summer and learned so much more than I imagined. I look forward to drawing upon these experiences and seeing how much I will have gained from my medical education and what more I can offer the next time I travel abroad for school.





Banner Photo: Taken this  past summer from the top of the Madras Lighthouse overlooking Marina Beach and the fisherman colony. The complexes being built are going to be subsidized housing for fisherman and their families. In the distance you can see boats and bundles of fishing nets. This area was heavily damaged by the 2004 Tsunami.


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