Inspired by a Mere 36 Hours in West Bengal

Team Seva is in Chaitanyapur, India working with VMANNN / Seva Foundation on a project to understand VMANN’s mentorship process, mentee relationships, and attributable outcomes through first-hand accounts, observations, and data collection.

In our IBD team’s first 36 hours in India, we explored Kolkata, experienced a rollercoaster ride to the small village of Chaitanyapur, feasted as newly welcomed guests, and witnessed the inspiring work that the team at VMANNN does on a daily basis, including giving sight to thousands of patients each year.  Here is our account of the crazy start to our three weeks in India.

Taxi Line at the Kokata Airport, A Late Night Cab Ride through Kolkata

Sunday 10:00am

Bengali woman against Kolkata traffic

 Despite arriving in Kolkata after more than 24 hours of traveling, we wake up early on Sunday morning with enough time to enjoy a thorough breakfast buffet and recount our travel mishaps.  We leave our hotel to do some sightseeing in the morning before meeting up with our host (Dr. Asim) and his family to travel to VMANNN where we will stay and work for the next three weeks.

From our very short and limited excursion, Kolkata exceeds our expectations, both for better and for worse.

Victoria Memorial from the Street, Seeking Shade in the Halls of the Indian Museum, Roaming the Streets of Kolkata

Victoria Memorial from the Street, Seeking Shade in the Halls of the Indian Museum, Roaming the Streets of Kolkata

 The tree lined streets, monuments and museums, and British architecture are shadows of the city’s past colonial life.  Under the hot sun and ample humidity, we walked past and through the Victoria Memorial, Indian Museum, St. Paul’s Church, General Post Office, High Court, and St. John’s Church.

Street scenes in Kolkata

However, what strikes us most about the city is the harsh daily reality facing much of population of Kolkata. Driving and walking through the city, we witness hundreds of people living in the streets – from sleeping on the pavement or atop makeshift counters serving as a surface, to bathing using the mains water pipes to cooking their meals by the side of the road. We see hundreds of street side hawkers working to earn a living to sustain themselves on.  In contrast to the grand buildings we see, this shows us how much the city struggled with the rapid population growth and political strife.

Lively Energy on the Street of Kolkata

Yet, there is an energy and liveliness stirring about in the streets wherever we go.  A game of cricket.  Animated conversations and quick smiles. A hand of cards. Brightly colored fabrics, jewelry, and buildings.

Sunday 1:00pm

Dr. Asim’s son

We quickly freshen up in our hotel rooms and pack our bags in time to meet Dr. Asim and his family.   Dr. Asim is the surgeon and medical director of VMANNN. Trained by Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy (aka Dr. V), the well-known and respected founder of Aravind, Dr. Asim has become a highly skilled and sought after eye care surgeon.  He runs VMANNN while also training other eye care institutions in capacity building, operational efficiency and surgical excellence.  We are very excited to finally be heading to the eye hospital that we had learned so much about!

Sunday 2:00pm

Road Traffic on the Way to Chaitanyapur

Driving in India is crazy.  The road along the way is dotted with huts, shacks, and unfinished construction.  Unlike many roads in other countries, there are not a lot of empty stretches of road or land.  The honking, hectic driving, and lack of rules aren’t confined to the city either and follow us all the way to the village.  Ironically, all of the trucks have bumper stickers saying “Obey Traffic Rules,” “India is Great,”  and “Good Luck.” Good luck would have it that we make it safely to VMANNN. 

Sunday 5:00pm

Contrary to our initial thoughts that we would be in a secluded, quiet part of town, our cars abruptly turn into a gated area amongst clusters of road side stands and many, many bikes, walkers, and cars.

Welcome to VMANNN

 A personalized welcome sign greets us to our home on the school campus.  We quickly unload the car and sit down for our first tea in the dining area of the guesthouse, which we soon realize is much more than just tea.  After indulging in fruit and Indian sweets, we ride for twenty minutes to a nearby market to purchase shalwar kameez (traditional Indian clothing) for our upcoming workweek.

Sunday 7:00pm

Dinner is served in our guest house, starting with a plate of rice and two small sides.  We breath a sigh of relief, glad to know the rumors weren’t true of how much we will eat!

Then, another dish arrives. And another.  And another.  And fruit. Then, dessert!   So THIS is where the extra 5 kilos will come from!  Throughout the rest of the trip, we are constantly fed – breakfast, snack, lunch, snack, dinner.  Our bellies full, the incessant honking lulls us off to sleep, dreaming of what our day will entail.

Monday 6:30am

We wake up after our first night at VMANNN to chirping birds, honking cars and lively school children. The air is hot and humid and the town of Chaitanyapur is ready to start the day slightly earlier than we are!

Monday 8:00am

Mangos, mangos, mangos

Breakfast is served.  Our gracious hosts have prepared another Indian feast for us consisting of toast, boiled egg, vegetable curry, fresh mango, banana and tea.  We are fueled up and ready to spend our first day on site at VMANNN’s eye care institution.

 Monday 9:00am

Introduction to VMANNN

Our guide and the mentorship coordinator, Purnendu, picks us up from our guest house.  The house is located within VMANNN’s educational campus, a facility that provides schooling to hundreds of local children, including many which are visually impaired, as well as vocational training to visually impaired adults.  They are taught to make spices, cloths and incense, which are sold at the eye care institution just up the street, which is where we are taken for the day and where our project is based.

Monday 10:00am

Purnendu introduces us to the hospital administrators who each play an instrumental role in maintaining day-to-day operations.

Explaining the Patient Journey at VMANNN, Witnessing the Patient Experience

We are guided through the extensive hospital landscape and walked through the patient journey map from arrival and registration to surgery and recovery.

A Patient Eagerly Waits at Registration, A Peek into the Registration Room at VMANNN

VMANNN services hundreds of patients every day whose sight has been severely compromised because of accidents, cataracts and other pressing health issues.

The need is vast. The staff at VMANNN work diligently, with care and compassion, to ensure each patient is effectively taken care of.

Post-op Patient at VMANNN in the General In-Patient Ward 

The hospital’s model is based on a sliding pay scale with the patients in greatest need receiving surgery free of charge; those with greater financial means pay a premium above the regular fee level. 

Monday 11:00am

Entering the Operation Theatre

The most exciting and unnerving part of the day took place in the Operation Theatre (OT).

Dr. Asim Performs Cataract Surgery

This is where the magic happens.

VMANNN Doctor Performs Surgery as Another Patient is Prepped

The surgical operation process is set up such that patients are escorted in, worked on, and escorted out in an efficient, almost assembly-like fashion with their total process time taking no more than 15-20 minutes.  Dr. Asim finishes the surgery on one patient, then turns to his immediate left to begin surgery on the next waiting patient.

IBD Team Scrubbing In for Surgery

We were fortunate enough to join Dr. Asim in the OT and watch as he meticulously performed numerous surgeries in succession.

Getting the Doctor’s View of the Cataract Surgery 

Although some of us felt queasy at the sight, our amazement kept us engaged as we watched the surgeries take place one after another.

Wood Piece Removed from Patient, Wood Piece Presented to Patient After Surgery

The most fascinating (and grueling) surgery came at the end. A man came in with a lodged object in his eye that had been there for a full month after he had an accident. Although he had visited several hospitals, no one had success in retrieving the item from his eye. However, his 200km trip to VMANNN was not in vain. After just a few attempts, Dr. Asim removed the object – a 5cm, thick piece of wood!

Success…and the day is just getting started.

We look forward to an exciting few weeks as we capture VMANNN’s eye care practices through observations, interviews and data collection. We will also travel to 2 hospitals that VMANNN formally mentors – one across the Ganges River and the other an 8 hour train ride away in the neighboring state of Orissa. Ultimately, we will compile a case study, document KPIs and recommend best practices for VMANNN’s mentorship process, which will also be used to inform other mentors in the Global Sight Initiative, a network led by our sponsoring client the Seva Foundation.

Considering our first 36 hours, we know it’s going to be quite an eye-opening experience! (Pun intended).

5 thoughts on “Inspired by a Mere 36 Hours in West Bengal

  1. Thanks for such a comprehensive , yet candid report/blog. The pictures matched by your perception can be an excellent travelogue -side effect of the visit.
    See you soon … in a week

  2. So nicely expressed.Thank you very much. We together have much to do for the people suffering from blindness.

  3. Thanks so much for the great report and the good work you are doing for our under served.

  4. What a beautifully done blog. It is like being in Chaitanyapur again. Be sure to check out the commemorative trees which are reminders of the many supporters of what Swamiji and the Drs. Sil are creating there. Dr. Richard Litwin and Judith Litwin

  5. A beautiful description of the exceptional sight restoring work at VMANNN. The photos really pull me in and Dr. Asim’s son is a darling. Looks like a rich and rewarding experience for all.
    Thanks for sharing…

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