“Shanti, shanti, shanti…” whispered Vetri, our yoga instructor, as I attempted to focus on my stomach, moving in and out with each breath. Quickly, the echo of “shanti” is drowned out by the continuous honking of passing motorbikes outside, while I am still trying to “think about nothing – absolutely nothing.” Shanti, which means peace, rest, or calmness, is what Vetri is trying to teach us, a group of five inflexible foreigners, six days a week in the most chaotic place I have ever lived.
Yet recently, during one of our sessions with Vetri, I began to reflect on how I’ve gradually and seamlessly integrated into life in Madurai. I’m not sure how exactly this happened, or when. Perhaps it is related to the fact that I feel as though I have been here for a year. The achari murgh tikka (a traditional spicy chicken dish) that once burned my esophagus now goes down without a second thought. The life-or-death challenge that was crossing the street is now a routine game of road-Tetris, where I subconsciously dodge cars, dogs, and cows by inches.
My work at Aravind Eye Care is no different. The first week, we toured the different hospital divisions by following different patients to understand the unique “patient flow” of Aravind; in other words, the process that a patient goes through from registration to checkout. I still remember being stared at in every waiting room by 100 people, as patients, nurses, and doctors scanned my ID badge for hints about why a visibly dehydrated, fair-skinned man is nervously walking around.
My first day in the operating theatre, I got yelled at by nurses for wearing shoes, not understanding that the no-shoe policy of India’s temples extended to the surgical ward. That day, I observed over 30 cataract surgeries, 3 orbital tumor removals, and 2 enucleations (removal of the eye). Although this seems like a lot, I was only there for six hours. The surgeons operate continuously with peak efficiency and focus, blocking out the chaos that comes with sharing an operating room with other surgeons, simultaneously explaining techniques to medical students, and being mindful of international trainees and researchers like myself, who come to learn from some of the most productive operating rooms in the world.
The hospital truly epitomizes the way of life in India: a vibrant institution that organically overcomes the overwhelming flows of people and unpredictable events. Despite the chaos of every day life on the street and at the hospital, I don’t remember the last time that I felt time move this slowly. Every day, I face unexpected obstacles working and living in a place with a different language and culture, but I feel much calmer than I do at school, where I have a fixed schedule and comfortable grasp of my environment. Whether or not its Vetri’s yoga class, I am definitely beginning to understand and feel shanti. It has helped me embrace the many moving parts of my life here.
For reference, here is an overview of some of the things I’ve done in my first month (mostly in pictures):
Research: For my project, I am studying the quality of life of patients with ocular prosthetics. I have been conducting patient interviews with a translator to guide my decisions in developing a questionnaire to administer to patients who use ocular prosthetics. Soon I will be testing the validity and reliability of my questionnaire and administering it to patients.
Travel: I have had the chance to visit Pondicherry, a French-colonial city on the east coast of India; Kanyakumari, a small coastal city on the southern-most tip of India, and a rural village in Tamil Nadu, where Aravind holds ‘eye camps’ to diagnose, recruit, and educate patients with eye disease in rural areas. The best part about traveling is trying the different foods along the way, and seeing how the cuisine changes from region to region.