Tuesday, February 22, 2011


A patchwork of green rolled out from the road. Each piece a unique texture and color – from the soft leaves of the rice paddies to the bristling palms, and the whispering dark green corn stalks to the floppy banana tree leaves. The quilt stretched out for miles in all directions; sewn together by little dirt pathways. This was my real introduction to rural Bangladesh.

I arrived at the Impact-funded hospital in Chuadanga around 6 PM and was greeted by Monowar. We took a very brief tour of the hospital during which he informed me that there was a surgeon in town who was conducting cataract surgeries in the operation theater as we spoke. I was intrigued. I asked whether I could watch.

With approval from the doctor, I was taken down to the theater. I had imagined I’d be sitting and watching the surgery from the other side of a glass partition. As it turned out, the theater was really more of a room and I was going to be in it. I changed into scrubs, which, though clean, were permanently stained, and took my seat in the corner of the room approximately five feet away from the patient.

The surgeon was in the midst of a removing a cataract. Next to the bed, a TV showed a close up of the procedure. The unblinking eye was staring at me. The attendants were speaking to each other in Bangla over the steady beeping of the heart rate monitor. Using cauterization to close the cut in the eye, the doctor wrapped up the surgery. The eye was bandaged, the microcope moved, the patient propped up, and then the nurse helped her off the table. Wait, she was awake this whole time?!

Given the fact that the heart rate had stayed so regular (and the fact that someone was digging around in the person’s eyeball) I had assumed that the patient would be under general anesthesia. “No” I was told, “that would take to long.” In a little over an hour, I witnessed seven surgeries. Each procedure took between 7-10 minutes, with about 3 minutes in between to swap patients and tools.

On the screen the cataract looked very gooey, but to be sure I asked what it really felt like. At the end of the next procedure the surgeon turned to me and dropped the extracted cataract on my bare hand. Reflexively I pulled away and it dropped to the floor. I was slightly appalled. For the rest of the time I held my hand far away from me and made sure not to touch anything (later, I would wash it repeatedly, use hand sanitizer, disinfectant and an anti-bacterial wipe). A cataract, in case you were wondering, feels like a piece of cartilage.

By the time the surgeries came to an end at midnight, 64 patients had been treated. (I left to have dinner long before the end.)

The next day, I received a more extensive tour of the facilities and other Impact projects. First we visited the outpatient area. That morning the resident optometrist was seeing the men and women who had had surgery the previous day. I was there when one man’s bandages were removed. This man, who had been virtually blind in that eye, was now able to correctly identify the letters on the first three lines of the eye chart. Pretty incredible!

Next door to the hospital is the physical therapy department. It is also the place where they produce a wide array of assistive devices – from back braces and crutches to arms and legs. Using plaster a model of the body part that needs to be fit is made. The technicians then use a variety of ingredients including metal, resin, and plastic to create these devices. The process takes three days and is done in house. With the help of the physical therapists, patients learn how to cope with and use their new limbs. People of all ages are able to overcome their disabilities and regain their independence.

While the hospital, physical therapy, and assistive devices help people cope with existing conditions, another mission of Impact is to prevent these ailments. One of the ways they do this is through Mothers’ Clubs. These clubs meet once every month. Each meeting, lead by a community liaison, focuses on a different topic.

The topic at the meeting I attended was vitamins. Mothers, dressed in their vibrant saris, were sitting on mats laid out in a U-shape. The liaison and Monowar were teaching and interacting with the group. The meeting took place outside in an open courtyard area and so I wandered about, taking photos and attempting to talk to the older children, grandparents, and villagers that were around. None of them spoke English and, aside from a few very basic phrases, I don’t speak Bangla – so in the end we just smiled at each other.

Part of being healthy is having a good diet so Impact has created another program – Home Gardens. Participants are provided with instructions on how to create and properly irrigate a garden and are then given the necessary supplies free of cost. Not only does having a home garden provide people with nutritious foods, they are able to save precious money. The women proudly showed us their neatly organized gardens of lettuce, tomatoes, spinach, radishes, carrots, and cabbage.

The last garden we visited was located in a small living community (perhaps a family “compound”) that belonged to a larger village. I was struck by how clean everything was. Though the ground is packed earth and the homes are made of mud with thatched roofs, nothing was out of place and the ground was swept and spotless.

The grandmother greeted us when we arrived. She showed us her garden, which was located in the middle of all the huts, and then took us on a little tour.  Like the moon pulls the tides, I seemed to pull the people. By the time we were wrapping up the tour a substantial group had gathered.

One little boy, perched on the grandmother’s hip, was very shy and refused to look at me. He swung his little fist at anyone who tried to turn his head. So imagine how surprised I was to see his face in our group picture. I showed it to him and for an instant a quick smile flashed across his face before he hid again in the comfort of a familiar shoulder.

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