Along for the Ride

Our intern cohort has a running joke that goes something like this: Aravind understands and speaks Tamil, Suhaas understands Tamil, Manya understands India, and Celeste is just along for the ride. “Along for the ride” definitely characterizes my first few weeks here, but I’ve been enjoying every moment of it.

Here are some abbreviated highlights (so far)….

Learning: Lions Aravind Institute of Community Ophthalmology (LAICO, i.e. the consultancy branch) is currently hosting a course so others can improve their community outreach through vision centers and eye camps. We’ll occasionally join these sessions to learn about topics like cost effectiveness measures, and the course is also a chance to see how other countries are approaching eye care services. Aravind may be the largest eye care provider in the world, but there are many striving towards the mission of reducing needless blindness. Other educational weekly discussions include grand rounds on Thursday evenings and LAICO journal club meetings on Friday mornings. The journal club is super interesting, and it has covered topics like screening for diabetic retinopathy and quality of life of retinoblastoma survivors. Something striking in all of these sessions is the generous sharing of information and the willingness to learn, no matter someone’s level of expertise.

Seeing: Aravind’s vision centers were first set up in 2004 and have become a widely studied model for universal eye care. Since 2004, around 700,000 patients have been seen in vision centers, which is over 1.5x the patient volume achieved through Aravind’s eye camps. Vision centers are permanent primary eye care facilities, whereas eye camps are temporary operations with less infrastructure needs. Along with several PGs, we went to a vision center in Alanganallur our second week here. Alanganallur is a panchayat that primarily grows crops like coconuts, sugarcane, and plantains. It’s also known for jallikattu celebrations, where a bull is released into a crowd and people attempt to climb on it. The rural reach of Aravind’s community health initiative is beyond impressive, even if the general operations seem straightforward enough: sisters at vision centers conduct basic eye care services and screenings, then patients teleconference with the base hospital’s doctors for expert opinions.

Snapshots from a visit to a nearby vision center on 13/6.

Doing: So where do I, someone just along for the ride, fit in? I spend a large chunk of each day working with the microbiology & quality and patient safety teams in the paid hospital. With help from my project guide, I’ve been improving Aravind’s hospital infection control training to reduce healthcare-associated infections. Another project I’ve been working on is researching the various factors behind optimal cataract surgery outcomes and eventually engaging in clinical documentation on the factors. Outcomes are quantified by three main components: infection rate, complication rate, and visual acuity. However, the most important measure is how the surgery improves the patient’s capacity for living a fulfilling and healthy life. Numbers and statistics are hard to visualize, but being immersed in the hospital’s hustle and bustle gives a palpable sense of purpose for the long working hours (for us interns, it’s 9 AM – 6 PM, Monday – Saturday). The patient centricity of Aravind is something that keeps me going, even when the days feel very long.

Aravind Eye Hospital at the end of our workday.

Finally, in no particular order, some fun highlights beyond work:

  • Getting to know the other trainees and interns!
  • Culinary adventures! My favorite restaurants we’ve tried are Appams & Hoppers, Barbeque Nation, and The South Indian. We’ve also developed a habit of getting coffee or tea together from a nearby street stall after work most days, so it’s a good thing each cup only costs 12 rupees.
  • Miral, a design intern from Avantika University, took us to her beautiful house for lunch. We enjoyed a delicious meal (the cheese dosas were heavenly) and were welcomed with amazing hospitality by her family.
  • Shopping for work-appropriate clothing with the help of Miral, Manya, and some very attentive store workers. Despite my best attempts to find plain and simple attire, I’ve embraced the colorful patterns and find my daily uniform of kurtas, loose pants, and sandals to be very comfortable. 
  • Aravind and I tagged along with Picard and Peter, two physician trainees, on their 6 AM Sunday jog at Sundaram Park. Madurai Medical College’s Uthiram ‘22 Marathon was happening at the same time, and the park was bustling with people of all ages having a great time. I’m not much of a morning person, but the nap afterwards was unbeatable.

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About celeste xu

Penn LSM '24. Summer 2022 intern at LAICO/Aravind Eye Care System in Madurai, Tamil Nadu. Aspiring trekker.