People & Partnerships

It is difficult to think about summers in India when the blistery cold of east coast winter sets in! Around November, I start to feel a bit disconnected from my work and get caught up in looking at a calendar instead of people. But the number one reason I love my job is because I get to work with so many inspiring individuals! Beyond the students and faculty at Penn I feel so lucky to have in my life, and of course all of my colleagues at CASI, I am time and again floored by the visionary leaders at all of our CASI partner organizations. And as I start thinking about partnerships for the upcoming summer I am launched out of my little university bubble and into a very different reality: India.

As part of my trip in December, I had the opportunity to meet with Dr. Venkatesh and Ms. Priya from Aravind Eye Hospital in Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu. For the past four summers we have been sending students to Aravind Eye Care Hospital in Madurai, a five to six hour drive southwest of Pondicherry. Hats off to the first class of CASI interns known as NanWuWare (Sam, Christina, and Sindhu) for paving the way for many future internship classes – Doreen, Diana, Gaby, Zach, Jane, Abhi, Olivia, Busra, and Vivek! Even our first Sobti Family Fellow, Vignesh Selvakumaran, spent nine months at Aravind in Madurai and Pondicherry working on several different projects! They know firsthand just how inspiring this place is.

In the past, our students have worked with LAICO, the management consulting arm at Aravind Eye Care Hospital in Madurai. There, they have found a comprehensive support structure with a steady list of projects and a team of researchers ready to be lifelong mentors. This year we are expanding our Aravind partnership to include the Pondicherry hospital. What makes this hospital unique? I had to find out.

First off, the entire campus is smaller. And with a smaller team, there is a lot more that needs to get done! It turns out many visitors have come to observe the hospital and generated project ideas through their outsider perspective. Dr. Venkatesh, Chief Medical Officer, spoke to me about several projects scholars and students had taken on in the past.

Over time, it can become challenging to locate patient records in the database due to simple spelling mistakes – an extra “a” in someone’s first name, a missing number in the street address, changed cell phones etc. So how can you get the first input correct on site? At the Pondicherry hospital they implemented a two-screen method where a patient will be looking at the same screen facing outwards while the administrator behind the desk is typing in the information. In this way, the patient is more likely to catch any typos and errors as and when they occur.

Another scholar had come to Pondicherry to understand the carbon footprint of cataract surgery at Aravind versus hospitals in the U.S. and UK. See “Carbon footprint and cost–effectiveness of cataract surgery” (Venkatesh, Rengaraj; van Landingham, Suzanne W.) What does a hospital’s carbon footprint consist of? 1. Emissions from energy use by buildings; 2. Emissions due to travel of patients/staff; 3. Emissions associated with the production, consumption, and disposal of all goods – think cataract lenses, surgical supplies etc. Turns out Aravind had a pretty low carbon footprint in comparison to other places in the world, no surprise there.

Dr. Venkatesh pulled up a video made for the Cleveland Clinic in the U.S. and spoke about how they might like a video that would help everyone at the hospital understand each other’s emotions, fears, and apprehensions. What a great project! Especially in India where patients do not have the same sense of empowerment or engagement in their own medical treatment. This could be a neat way to bring the nurses, doctors, staff, and patients together to understand each other a little better. We decided this might be a great CASI internship project for summer 2016. To kick start this, I decided that we should make a little trial video and called Sindhu Nandhakumar our 2015-16 Sobti Family Fellow and former Aravind intern to come and visit an eye camp the next day!

Here we are

And yes, that is a 360 camera on my head! The videos require a google cardboard viewer. We have a little viewer at CASI so come check it out if you have some time. Or, open it in Chrome and click on the video and scroll around in any direction to get the full 360 effect.

While I wanted Sindhu to put her Tamil skills to work and actually talk to people about the emotions of going through the eye camp, this really is a multi-part process. We should have made individual videos of each station. And then gone back through and done little interviews of the patients and nurses and then put it all together. Instead, you will see our trial run with Sindhu holding a mic and us talking to each other, laughing with the nurses, and trying to explain what is going on with the camera on my head. But check out the refraction – it’s for real.

Sindhu had never been to an eye camp during her Aravind internship! And well, there is nothing quite like going through that experience and seeing how community leaders mobilize to put the day together. A bus brings the doctors and nurses out to a town or village often 1-2 hours drive from the hospital. Sometimes 300 people show up, sometimes less. Because of the recent floods they were expecting fewer patients this time around. There are six stations where people get tested for glaucoma, diabetes, refraction, and glasses are made on the spot! For those who require cataract surgery – they are fed lunch and travel by bus back to the hospital where they spend the night and are operated on the next day before returning home. The ability to attract and push so many people through the camp is mind-boggling. And it comes at no cost to the patients.

I think Busra Gungor, C’17 and 2015 CASI-Aravind intern said it best when asked what was so unique about her summer experience: “I think working in India made me realize something that I don’t notice as much in the states: passion. The number of hours the doctors work and the number of patients they see within a day is truly remarkable. Seeing them in that environment and still be able to maintain a smile was incredible. Their passion for the organization was truly evident in everything they did.”

Applications are still open! Aravind is one of seven CASI internship partners we have for 2016.

More 360 videos and stories on CASI partners coming soon!

Aparna Wilder
Associate Director CASI Student Programs and Outreach



2 thoughts on “People & Partnerships

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

About Aparna Wilder

Associate Director, CASI Student Programs and Outreach After graduating from Penn, Aparna spent six years living and working in India. She volunteered with Indicorps and started her own production house, global rickshaw, that makes short films in collaboration with NGOs and non-profit organizations. Aparna is a TED India Fellow and holds an MPA from Columbia University.