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Eye Camps

In the poorer remote areas of India, villagers have a desperate need for decent medical care. Some will walk days to get it. Some will spend several months wages on a simple procedure. And then there are those who are gripped by with fear and suspicion in their hearts who will always avoid getting the help they need.

This is a story of one son of India, now a successful restaurateur in Seattle, who once a year, gives something back to his homeland. Blindness and cataract problems plague villagers in rural India. It is a common but avoidable problem. To fight this problem, volunteers have created a traveling road-show of sorts: the EYE CAMPS.

Fighting blindness in remote northern India

story and photographs
by Maxwell Balmain

Both men grew up in small villages in the Punjab, a northern province in India that is a long way from any tourist destination.

Both men traveled many determined miles this winter to get to a free eye camp held at the small hospital in a village called Tapa. Kamal Mroke, 38, a successful restaurateur from Kirkland, traveled in comfort aboard a modern jet. Phula Sing, 45, a poor illiterate farmer, walked 10 miles before boarding an ancient bus for a jarring four-hour journey.

The restaurant owner was calm. The farmer was very anxious. It would be the third trip to the eye camps for both men. Mroke, owner of Raga Cuisine of India on Kirkland's Central Way (now relocated to Vancouver BC), brought the funds that would ensure the operations' success.

Sing, on Feb. 25th, would get his vision back.

Family ties

Mroke spent his childhood in the Punjab, where most of his family still lives.

One day news from home greatly strengthened those ties, and changed his life. His elderly aunt was loosing her eyesight and needed cataract surgery. Like many seniors living in rural India she kept quiet about her condition, even while her sight deteriorated. Kamal learned she was nervous and embarrassed -- she did not have the money for the procedure she desperately required.

Mroke paid for the operation, and made sure she received all the medical care required. He then learned of the free eye camps bringing doctors and nurses to rural areas.

This year, Mroke was involved with eight eye camps held in small villages in the Punjab, with each camp seeing about 200 to 300 people. Ten percent of those examined required cataract or some other eye surgery.

The eye camps

Each camp lasts three days. Day One is preparation for the arrival of patients and their families. A long ceremony, with many speeches, begins around 11 a.m. Then a ceremonial candle is lit and long lines, one each for men and women, form outside the examination room.

The doctor quickly shines a flashlight into the eyes of a scared patient. Diagnosis is almost instantaneous. Patients needing cataract surgery get a large letter "C" scribbled on their foreheads with a felt-tipped pen.

Those chosen then gather outside in the dusty hospital courtyard, speaking softly among themselves. Some will leave immediately, opting for possible blindness rather than face surgery. Some will spend the night only to leave in the morning. Day Two is for surgery.

The actual operations are a contrast between expertise and fear. The expertise comes from the eye surgeon, Dr. R.N. Gothwal, and his small team, who by now are very practiced and work together with the routine efficiency shown by assembly workers. Many of the patients are gripped by fear as they position themselves on the rickety operating tables, where they remain motionless until getting help to step down. The operations are quick, performed on tables three or four abreast. The area around the eye is deadened by a local anesthetic. A stitch into the lid keeps the eye open. With a practiced swiftness, Dr. Gothwal makes the incision. Then, using two small spoon-like tools, the cataract-infected lens -- looking like a cross between a corn kernel and a clear vitamin -- is squeezed out of the eye. Kamal, watching from behind a surgical mask, is stunned by the speed of the procedure and the size of some of the cataracts. Although he's always a little queasy about such procedures, "I had to see it myself just once so I could describe it to people."

The patient is then bandaged and shown the way out to the recovery room. Most spend the night, lying without moving on a bed.

The Happy Club

The Indian government provides trained eye specialists to the camps -- some of the doctors build their reputations here before entering private practice.

The specialists travel with a team of seasoned nurses and aides. Theirs is a volume business. Then there are the social clubs, who do most of the heavy lifting. In Tapa that club is known as the Happy Club, and has around 50 members, most of them local businessmen and teachers.

Happy Club members rent tents and other equipment. They print fliers and ride around on scooters with speakers, announcing news of the free eye camps. They do the taxi work, picking up patients and their families.

And they do it for free.

At the camp in Tapa, all of this activity descends on the tiny government hospital and its only doctor, Rajesh Sharma. This quiet but overworked doctor works six days a week and is on call for emergencies 24 hours a day. He cannot travel very far from the hospital, and never takes a vacation. All of this will not change until he gets another assignment to a bigger hospital.

The money

Mroke has no medical expertise, bureaucratic influence, or direct control over tasks performed by the doctors or the Happy Club. His role is vital, however.

Although the Indian government provides the surgeons, it does not pay the many expenses that can quickly sink the hopes of patients and volunteers alike. Most of the money that keeps these camps running comes from Kirkland -- from Kamal's pockets, and from his restaurant.

The restaurant staff at the Raga chip in as well. Tips get stuffed into a battered coffee pot at the end of the night. Some restaurant patrons -- many originally from India -- help out, too. The money raised on the Eastside helps pay the tab for expenses on the ground in the Punjab: for local advertising, patient transport, medicines, glasses, anesthetics, sutures, bandages, blankets and food. American dollars go a long way there: The bill for the eight camps would total around $11,000.

Kamal's brother-in-law, Sindi Kainth, and Tejinder Kaur Sandhu, a nurse, both from Vancouver, B.C., joined him on the February trip. Sindi Kainth helps make sure the transition from one camp to the next goes smoothly. He also helps raise money.

The patient

Phula Sing made this troubled journey twice before. It has become almost routine -- the planning, the separation from his two children, the long trip, the inspection and the same grim diagnosis. Get the surgery or lose the sight in his left eye, permanently.

Next comes the long sleepless night in the crowded hospital, waiting for morning. Both previous times, filled with awful visions of the operation going horribly wrong, he bolted, moments before the surgery.

This third journey for Phula Sing would be a success. He would face his fear, get the operation and recover quickly. His vision would be saved.

After surgery, Day Three is recovery time. In the afternoon there is a health lecture followed by a closing ceremony. Then the cycle starts again. The team moves to a new village, doing the work that means as much to Kamal as it does to the villagers -- who advise their family and friends to come to these particular camps because their backers come all the way from Canada and America to help them. Kamal puts it this way: "If I am going to do something, it is better to do it from the heart."

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