Bhutan’s first eye camp

Bhutan in the early 70s had an elderly population who were sight challenged because of cataracts.

Responding to a need to address the ophthalmic challenges that were prevalent in great numbers at that time, Sam wrote to  Professor, Dr. Anna Thomas the Ophthalmic Surgeon at The Schell Eye Hospital of the Christian Medical College and Hospital, Vellore. As students, we had attended eye camps that she conducted in the villages with her team, restoring sight to the villagers with minimum fuss and bother.

The team would start work in the evening using the darkness of the night to do the ophthal screening they would normally have done in a dark room. Patients would be prepped for Surgery in the morning. Sister Soshamma who had worked with Dr. Thomas for years knew her every move and placed the correct instrument in Dr. Thomas’ outstretched hand during the operations every time. As did Somu , the Paramedic, their Man Friday, who accompanied them everywhere.

If Sister Soshamma was Dr. Anna Thomas’ right hand, Somu was her left. They would set up multiple operating beds and Dr. Anna Thomas would move from table to table while Sister Soshamma and Somu bandaged and dressed the cases she operated on. There were no untoward incidences in the camp cases and no infections either, as the cases  were  chosen carefully and operated on under stringent sterile conditions.

Letters took a long time to go from Bhutan to India and back. When we did not hear from her, we assumed that she was not coming. One morning  the post man brought a letter from Dr. Anna Thomas. She had accepted our invitation. She was coming to conduct an Eye Camp in Gida Kom Hospital. The Eye Camp team, she said, would arrive in 2 weeks. We were delighted.

Sam ran around and got all the sanctions and paper work done. The night Dr. Anna Thomas and her team arrived there was an unprecedented upheaval, like never seen before in Gidakom. 12 labourers , all male, of different age groups ,were brought in with the deadly alcohol and berry poisoning. This was the highest number of poisoning cases that we had ever seen in a single night.  Leaving Dr. Thomas to rest, we ran down to the OPD.

Somu and Sister Soshamma were brilliant. Rolling up their sleeves they pitched in. In no time,  multiple units of gastric lavage was set up . Somu is tall, lanky and loose limbed. He looks a bit like Nagesh, the yester-years comedian of the Tamil screen.  We were in splits seeing him sit purposefully astride the cowering labourer, urging them to relax while he passed the tubes. He spoke no Hindi  and the Labour spoke no Tamil.

Undeterred,  Somu  exhorted them in colloquial Tamil to relax while he passed the tubes down.   Dai, vaai thora da, Dai, Dai, Dai…Pallu kadikathe Da. ..Dai, Dai. Soon inebriated men were retching and gagging all over the place, emptying the poisonous contents of their stomachs and limping to recovery. Trudging down the hill later that night,  the exhilarated duo , Sister Soshamma and Somu, both agreed that they had not had such excitement in a long long time.

The eye camp was inaugurated the next day by Lyonpo Dawa Tshering the Honourable Foreign Minister of Bhutan. The first eye camp in Bhutan, was dedicated to the memory of the late Third King of the Druk Kingdom, His Majesty Jigme Dorji Wangchuk, the benevolent Monarch who had died in Nairobi on a visit.

There were no dark room facilities to examine the patients. All the patients were examined at night and posted for surgery in the morning. As this was the first Eye Camp conducted in Bhutan, the Government had publicised the event extensively and many elderly were carried to Gida Kom over the week old camp.

Some patients were carried strapped to the back of a younger relative. Others were carried in baskets that the young held in place with a broad cord over their foreheads. Some had trekked for miles with their elderly in hope and they returned home to a new life, sighted and aware of their surroundings with new glasses free of cost after cataract surgery.

This helped in demystifying the stigma of Leprosy and a Leprosy Hospital. Word soon spread that Gidakom Leprosy Hospital looked after general patients too. It was not just another Leprosy Hospital.

It was not such a bad place after all.

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