“Where are you from?” he asked me.
I was surprised to find him speaking in English while I was trying to communicate with the patients in my gibberish Tamil. I was injecting several patients with an anesthetic injection before their eye surgery. He was the first patient who tried to strike a conversation with me.
I said, “India”
He replied with a beaming almost toothless smile on his face,
“Welcome to Sri Lanka. We love Indians”
I was part of a team of surgeons who went to Northern Sri Lanka to operate on poor patients there who couldn’t afford eye surgery. We went to a hospital in Vavuniya which was the biggest hospital in the northern province to do the surgeries. This region was the most affected by the 25 year old civil war which only recently ended. We three surgeons- two from India and one from Singapore reached Vavuniya after months of planning between the NGO I work with-Singapore based The Vision Mission, Sri Lankan Ministry of Health (MoH) and the sponsors- our point of contact being a generous UK based Lankan-British, Dr. Sarvesvaran who represented Assist UK. People from four different countries coordinating a massive surgical mission trip. It was a mammoth task even if I say so myself. Everything from instruments, OT assistants, OT facilities, patient movement logistics, surgeon dates and political interference had to be worked out. This was to be the largest ever eye surgery camp in Sri Lanka.
Fortunately, everything was brilliantly planned and executed to the dot and we landed in Vavuniya via Colombo on one fine afternoon in May 2016. We had to convert an orthopaedic OT into an ophthalmic OT. The OT team from Colombo along with the existing OT staff in Vavuniya did an amazing job of that in a few hours. We were ready for a test run of surgeries by the end of the day to assess our capability to handle the case load. We operated about 30 patients in 2 hours which was what we were aiming for on the first day. As we got more familiar with the atmosphere we went on to gradually increase the number of patients operated each day.
Coming back to the gentleman who I mentioned at the start. It turned out that this 70 year old gentleman was a retired typist who was in government service but now was struggling to make ends meet. He ended up in this camp because he was getting blind. It turned out that I was the one who ended up operating on him. Since he was among the last set of patients for that day, after surgery he was waiting for the bus which would take him back to the hospital when I walked out of the OT. I recognised him and spoke to him, telling his surgery went well.
He smiled again and said,
“I’ll pray to Jesus for you”
I’m not religious but I was truly moved by his gratitude. He even asked for my photo, so one of my colleagues took a photo from this man’s run down cellphone. I asked them to take one from mine too.
Our surgical team in Vavuniya completed nearly 500 surgeries within a duration of 5 days making this trip a grand success.
Whenever I was not operating, I tried to converse with the patients using the OT nurses as interpreters. There was man who lost one arm and an eye in a bomb blast in Jaffna during the civil war and who had cataract in his one good eye.
There was one lady with a complicated cataract in both eyes who could see for the first time in 12 years and gave a 10 minute heartfelt speech at the closing ceremony in Sinhalese. This patient below was among the post operative patients recording us the whole of the closing ceremony. We surgeons were being felicitated by the local health authorities after we achieved our surgical targets. I was curiously observing this patient from afar and took this photo while there was a speech going on in Sinhalese which I couldn’t understand at all. Later using a translator we asked him what he was doing. He told us that he wanted to record the doctors to show his wife the people who were responsible for the return of his eyesight. This experience has been a truly touching experience.
There were 500 similar stories like this. It was heartening that we could make so much difference so far from home. The gratitude we experienced from those patients and the local people there at the closing ceremony made our 12–14 hour OT shifts everyday all worth it.
A career in clinical medicine is truly rewarding if you know your place in the larger scheme of things. It’s not that medicine is the only place where one can make a difference in people’s lives. Politicians, journalists, bureaucrats, billionaire philanthropists, engineers, managers, etc all play probably far more important roles in society affecting millions of people. In medicine, one needs to be passionate about what one does, acquire skills & knowledge that would help one do their work effectively without expectations of being rewarded monetarily and to understand the important role that one performs in society helping one patient at a time- the small yet remarkable work of doctors!