Indian Impressions

Indian Impressions

Kyle Packer shares his impressions after spending two months in Mungeli, India with Anil and Teresa Henry. Kyle is a member of St. Stephen the Martyr Roman Catholic Church. His visit to Mungeli was his first experience with Global Ministries.

Kyle Packer shares his impressions after spending two months in Mungeli, India with Anil and Teresa Henry. Kyle is a member of St. Stephen the Martyr Roman  Catholic Church.  His visit to Mungeli was his first experience with Global Ministries.

I can’t even begin to adequately describe or tell of all the experiences I was fortunate enough to enjoy during my two month sojourn in India, but I will try to convey some of pieces that I feel are most relevant as a medical school applicant.  I went to volunteer at a Christian mission hospital in a small town called Mungeli in a rural state in northern India called Chhattisgarh.  I was hosted by an amazing man, Dr. Anil Henry, and his wife, Dr. Teresa Henry, who were placed there five years ago by an organization called Global Ministries to revitalize what was then a barely functioning clinic.  They have done a fantastic job and CHM (Christian Hospital Mungeli) is now an 80 bed hospital manned by five doctors and a score of nurses, boasting surgical facilities, proper dental and out-patient departments, a full pharmacy, lodging quarters for the staff, and with construction underway for a blood bank and a cancer-therapy unit.  In short it’s a whirlwind of activity and the beds are always full of local townspeople and outlying villagers who often travel long distances to be treated at what is the only proper healthcare facility in the area.

I spent most of my time in Mungeli teaching at the local school and helping out at the hospital.  I developed a nice daily routine in which I would be up for chapel and morning rounds before heading over to school for a few hours of teaching English or math or history or economics to classes 7-9.  I then spent the afternoons observing or assisting in OT (Operating Theatre, as they call it) and, occasionally, the dental department.  It was fascinating to be immersed in a medical system so different than our own, where sunlight and a few antibiotics take the place of our intensely maintained barriers of sterility.  It was interesting to see how those very different tools were used to provide effective treatment, and to experience firsthand just how easily the essence of care transcends the barriers of language, religion, and caste. 

We began each morning round with a tour through the ICU where stroke victims, alcoholics, TB patients, and the comatose congregate in that space where life is quantified by oxygen saturation, blood pressure, and the precious beep of beating hearts. From there it was through a back room to the nursery where babies struggled in needle-pricked slumbers for a chance at more tomorrows. Then it was out the women’s ward to pass through a score of dirty beds with a score of dirty bodies mending stitches of organs pierced on the table by blades and gloves that have surely seen the inner workings of another. They lied with dust and flies under the watchful eyes of their families and the knowing eyes of the nurses. We would then stop through a handful of private rooms for wealthier women before heading upstairs to check in on renovations of the former ICU where day laborers mixed concrete by hand, chiseled down bricks and mortar, and braced their walls with warped bamboo poles.  Just outside that noisy mess is the musky men’s ward where a dozen urine bags hung from ratty blankets flagging the healing bodies screaming for water. Our round then took us to a row of more private rooms, one where a boy would always cry because the doctor’s presence meant a needle stick, and one where a 20 year old woman lay in mosquito netting and took down 40 eggs a day through her nose, material to repair flesh brutally scorched in a cook stove explosion.  Such was the morning round, checking up on life’s beginnings and endings.

Being my first trip abroad, it was an amazing experience of cultural perspective.  One difference that really hit home was the power of touch:  holding hands with new friends, rubbing arms in crowded cars, eating with my fingers – the proximity of humanity created a different sort of connection, one in which life there felt very personal.  This was no less true in OT, and one I first found to be almost overwhelming as I was oriented to the inner workings.  The first time I scrubbed in to assist for a caesarian I felt like life was moving in slow motion.  Helping to bring another human being into the world was such an indescribably powerful experience, and the feel of that birth-motion is forever burned in my mind.   Another time, during the closure of a hysterectomy patient, one of the surgeons, Dr. Sudeep, told me to come on the other side of the table to complete the superficial sutures.  It was like being called onstage at a rock concert:  total tunnel vision and a stomach-nest of butterflies.  The forceps and clamp felt unfamiliar and so did piercing flesh, but with a little encouragement I was able to complete the task, and thanks to Dr. Sudeep’s willingness to teach, will never forget how to make that suture.  Being inspired by this intense personal engagement, I borrowed an anatomy book from Dr. Anil to start learning about the things I saw every day.  Surgery is like the ultimate puzzle, you have to take things apart in such a way that after you’ve rearranged some of the pieces, you can put everything back together again.  When it is properly executed it is an amazing performance.

Being constantly bombarded with experiential fodder, I became accustomed to being awestruck and, not too long afterwards, I found that hospital life felt surprisingly normal.  It was a refreshing change to the familiar procedures when the Henry’s 9-year-old twins accompanied me one evening to observe an emergency caesarian.  Having children in OT made the show into quite a spectacle; their innocent and curious commentary made half of the procedure a continuous chuckle, and it was refreshing to see stoic routine undercut by wonder.  But even as the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the 60’s have shown, after periods of discovery we have an innate desire to understand through categorization, and this inevitably leads to the establishment of custom.  That evening, we were privy to the reason behind the establishment of OT customs as the doctors labored in their furious formality to extract a dying baby, who was passing stool in his final panic mechanism, a feeble instinctual attempt to clutch at a life he did not know.  “Not good,” Dr. Anil’s words tersely described a situation we didn’t fully understand as the mother quaked and moaned on the table.  In the end, both the baby and the mother are fine and, after our harrowing structural lesson, I was left with an emotional treat: an image of the two children touching the soft hands of a fresh life still specked with gore from his first brush with death.  A death prevented only by generations of knowledge manifested in the right place at just the right time by the sweaty team beside them, routinely closing another patient. 

But, as we know, not every case turns out so well.  I got pretty attached to a patient who came in with a ruptured appendix which had developed into terrible abdominal abscesses and septicemia and I visited her in ICU a few times after her surgery.  Though I didn’t understand all the science behind her case, I couldn’t help but in appreciate how fragile her grip on this life had become.  One afternoon in OT, I was sad to hear from Dr. Teresa that she had “expired”.  I was initially irked by her use of that healthcare vernacular description of death, but I came to understand that the issue of parting is too potent to deal with time and time again, so we mask it behind this benign term, a term designed to function without connection, to sever the link of caring effort with a distant finality that clearly says, “Your work here is done.”

After two months of living in a hospital compound in rural India I have come away with many new insights into the profession of love.  I can see so plainly how finding the proper balance between compassion and detachment is essential to providing the best treatment for patients while still preserving one’s own humanity and sanity.  As patients we always demand the best possible care from our doctors, often placing blind trust in their judgment.  It was very interesting to experience this relationship from the other side, where practicing the science and art of healing can become frustrating, exhausting, and finally mundane in the face of the endless merry-go-round of human suffering.  Doctoring, by definition, is an intensely human endeavor, and it takes a special presence and a special strength to stand in the face of its withering emotional onslaught.  I’ll close this letter with a passage from one of the blog posts I wrote during my time at the hospital.  Being a Christian mission hospital and writing for a churchgoing audience, the language is distinctly religious, but the theme holds true for us all and I think is especially relevant in this context as I seek to begin a medical career.

In the midst of all this activity came a question Nancy asked as she was thinking about our time here, “How did you serve God in India?” The answer to that question is tricky. Before leaving I had a talk with my brother about the formation of habit, a point that I lifted from many poolside lectures at Kenyon. The idea is that we don’t suddenly become someone new without making it happen, or without allowing it to happen. Daily life here has its differences, but they are differences to which we slowly allow ourselves to become accustomed. When the glossy feeling of newness wears off we find that life is, yet again, just life, and each day is just another day. In this sense it can become easy to wonder, how did I serve God?

“Come and see” was our invitation, an invitation with many layers, but centered on the connection between us and them. We have done many things in India– eaten her foods, shopped in her strange markets, choked down her dust, wandered amongst her monuments, shared smiles and unspoken understanding, seen new life brought forth, and watched neglected life slip away. We’ve formed relationships, which however temporary they may end up being, have left impressions that are sure to last a lifetime. We were given a short window of opportunity to laugh and cry and wonder, and to construct with our individual gifts something with bettered the life of another. So how did we serve God? In the same ways we did at home, for action is our tool but shaping a humble and contrite heart is our true service, a service which knows no bounds within any activity and which requires no place to perform.  Come and see – an invitation as welcoming as you allow it to be.