Other Features: Teaching and Learning Moments
The first time I saw her she was walking slowly down the hospital corridors. She wore large, dark glasses and stretched her arms out to one side, feeling along the aqua green walls. Leading her was a middle-aged Indian man, the girl’s father, whose bare feet and tattered clothes painted a clear picture in my mind of the harsh life they led. The slow, careful movements of the young girl were all too familiar to me as a volunteer at the eye hospital, and I immediately knew that she was totally blind.
That summer, I was volunteering at Shroff’s Charity Eye Hospital in the heart of New Delhi. The hospital organizes outreach programs in the disadvantaged areas surrounding Delhi and strives to provide free eye care to those in need. In fact, more than 50% of the surgeries performed at the hospital are either free or highly subsidized. As a hospital volunteer and first-time visitor to the country, I was shocked to learn that India is home to more than one fourth of the world’s blind population. Sadly, this includes a large number of blind children, who have lost their sight to readily treatable conditions. The lack of societal support and poor quality of life for India’s blind children leads to a life expectancy that is 15 years shorter than that of children with sight.
The young girl I had seen in the hallway had a similar story to that of many of India’s blind children. Her name was Deepna, and she was 15 years old. She had been picked up at one of Shroff’s community outreach screenings in Saharanpur, a poor district of Uttar Pradesh. Along with 20 other children in her village, she attended a school for the blind. Deepna was one of seven children, and her father worked as an assistant baker making 1,500 rupees per month, the equivalent of $37.
I saw Deepna in the cornea clinic that afternoon, and I learned that at the age of three, she was affected with a virus, which her father referred to as the “black water.” According to the cornea specialist, Dr. Mather, it was probably a case of measles. He explained that oftentimes when children in areas with insufficient medical knowledge become ill, their mothers stop breastfeeding them. Subsequently, the children can become malnourished and vitamin A-deficient, and they can develop further complications. He speculated that Deepna probably developed keratomalacia and corneal ulcers at the time of her initial viral infection, which were left untreated, eventually forming scars. The dense leukomas blocked her visual axis, leaving her blind in both eyes. According to her father, she was on the cornea transplant waitlist at another hospital for 11½ years. At the time of her initial clinic visit, Deepna had light perception in her right eye, but she was completely blind in her left eye. Dr. Mather immediately scheduled her for a corneal graft of the right eye, since he believed that eye had a better chance of regaining some visual function in the future.
I had the opportunity to see Deepna and her father a few weeks later at a postoperative checkup. I was thrilled to learn her vision had progressed so that she was able to count fingers with her right eye. Perhaps this feat seems small, but Deepna had a smile on her face that I’ll never forget. I was curious to see how her life had changed since the corneal transplant, so I sat down beside her on the hospital bed, and I asked the ward nurse to translate for me. I wanted to know her hopes and dreams, now that she had the prospect of regaining some sight. With a shy, yet joyful smile, Deepna told me that someday she wanted to be a musician. Her perseverance in the face of a debilitating handicap was an inspiration to me. She lived a difficult life while struggling with blindness, yet she was able to overcome this great obstacle and have a vision for the future. Her story inspired me to paint her portrait. I painted the word “musician” in Hindi above her, as a testament to her future aspirations. I’ll never know if Deepna achieves her dream of becoming a musician, but her simple smile of joy will stay with me forever.
Monica P. Lynch
Ms. Lynch is a fourth-year student at the University of Tennessee College of Medicine, Memphis, Tennessee.