Cristy reflects on her second Equal Health trip

Cristy (seated in photo ) spoke with Equal Health prior to her second trip to India volunteering with Equal Health. We caught up with Cristy on her return and she shared her experiences.

1. What were your first impressions of India and the camp situation?

This was my third trip to India and the first things I always notice are the humidity, the smell and the noise. I don't find the smell offensive, it is a rather earthy smell and gives me a sense of groundedness.

My first recollection of the traffic noise was that I had forgotten that India is the land of musical horns and they don't hesitate to use them! I am always grateful that I don't have to drive in India and the Equal Health bus drivers are always excellent. Never once did I feel unsafe and they negotiate some pretty tight lanes and bridges with ease.

This was my second Equal Health trip and both times I have been pleasantly surprised by the camp set up with little cabins. Some even had a rice paddy view! This time we were based at SEVAI (Society for Education Village Action and Improvement), 45 minutes out of Trichy. Some of us would walk in the village in the morning and the villagers were extremely friendly. While we were admiring the intricate chalk or rice flour designs on the footpaths, one lady came out of her home and then brought her mother who did the designs. They then also showed us a book of their designs before asking us in for tea. These experiences are definitely ones you would miss as a tourist and it is wonderful to have these insights into such a rich culture.

There is not much down time, the working days are full and the days off are packed with sightseeing, swimming and shopping. One day off we had a particularly delicious meal at the home of one of the ophthalmic surgeons, Dr Deveki.

The beds, while not the most comfortable I have ever slept in were not an issue for me as each night when I hit the pillow I was sound asleep! Cold bucket showers take a little getting used to but were quite refreshing.

2. What was the highlight of the India Camp 2014? Any funny or interesting stories?

For me, personally, the highlight of the 2014 camp was a serendipitous visit to a local hospital, GVN Hospital, in Trichy. It is a charitable hospital, where patients pay some money towards their treatment if they can afford it and is quite advanced for an Indian hospital. It was the only hospital we visited and coincidentally a patient of mine from my home practice in Australia, Julie, was a patient in this hospital following a fire in her hotel and a fall from three stories. There were extensive injuries and I had heard this story from a friend a week before leaving, but knew only that it was in India. I had no idea where in India and there would literally be thousands of hospitals in India.

Paul Clarke, the Camp Leader, was excellent in taking me to visit Julie several times and offered the support of the team should she need it. Given I had joined the team at the last minute after a call in December for more dentists, it was a confirmation of being in the right place at the right time. Julie was eventually 'Medivac-ed' to Australia and is improving, but it is a long road ahead.

The Equal Health team was very generous, donating food and supplies from Australia. One time, I ran into some team members in the supermarket who had just bought cereal for Julie. This is an example of the kind people who join Equal Health teams and it is a privilege to meet them.

The drive to work most mornings was always an adventure, crossing a one-lane bridge to the SEVAI school. The drivers negotiated some stubborn opposing traffic and at times had to reverse a significant distance following a standoff.

The SEVAI school concert was also entertaining, with the classes giving dances and plays to entertain their families and dignitaries.

I did, at one point, try to give oral hygiene instruction to some school children in large classes. They thought I was hilarious given my very limited Tamil and were laughing uproariously. I actually did not think I was that funny but obviously my miming is not a common sight. Damn it, there goes my Bollywood career ...

3. How does working in India compare to working in Australia?

With Equal Health we are trying to do the best we can in very limited circumstances. At times it is extremely frustrating with interpreters replying to us in Tamil, but we do what we can.

The lack of suction for the dental team is interesting with communal spit buckets! Coming home to work in Australia is exciting when you realise what we can do with such ease. It reminds me to appreciate what I often take for granted. It is important to focus on who we can effectively help with the limited resources we have. There is the well known story of the man walking along the starfish-strewn beach at low tide and sees another man walking towards him throwing starfish back into the ocean. The first man asks, "Why are you throwing starfish back into the sea? There are thousands of them, you cannot throw all the starfish back into the sea, what difference could it possibly make?" The man picking up the starfish throws another, then another back into the sea and says, "It made a difference to that one, and that one." With the Equal Health program in Trichy, we are providing treatment to the students, staff and community of the SEVAI organisation, so annual visits over a number of years services a cohort of people and provides tangible results.

4. Are there any patients who stood out? Please tell a story or two about people you treated.

The most memorable patient for me was an elderly lady of 70-plus years who presented to the Dental Team with advanced oral cancer. The lady just wanted her tooth out as she was certain this was the cause of her tumour and had already pulled out one or several of her teeth herself. All members of the Dental Team were trying to impress upon this lady and her elderly husband that it was a very serious situation and they needed to go a clinic immediately. It did not register with them that this was life threatening situation. The lady and her husband were taken to the Medical Team also to try to impress upon them that it was imperative to seek immediate treatment. Such advanced cases of oral cancer do not present to general dental practice in Australia. It was distressing for members of the Medical and Dental Teams that the lady did not understand her situation, despite trying to get multiple interpreters to explain it to her and her husband.

Another memorable patient was a medical patient, who I had overheard also had a life threatening situation of bladder obstruction and had to go to hospital immediately via car transport. I saw him walking out of the camp and realised he was leaving, I ran (and for those who know me, know I never run!) to get Jeannette (Medical Team), and we both ran back out onto the roadside. The patient had decided he was catching a bus to the hospital. Sometimes the gravity of the situation and how we approach it in Australia is markedly different in India.

5. How has the camp impacted you, personally and professionally?

The overwhelming sense of trusting I was in the right place at the right time. I was once again impressed by the people who make up the Equal Health team - a group of diverse medical and allied health practitioners who quickly form friendships and work together. There was a lot of inter-referring to other disciplines and I found it very interesting to observe other professions at work. Often, at home in Australia, I am so focussed on my own patients, I will often have little knowledge of other practitioners' work in my own practice, so it was very enlightening to see what other professions do and how they go about it. I will definitely not be retraining as a podiatrist! Brendan and Helen were excellent, the first podiatrists to volunteer with Equal Health and they saw and treated a lot of cracked feet!

I was particularly impressed with the Allied Health Team who worked closely with the Special Needs Class at SEVAI School. Initially I was sceptical as to what could be achieved in two weeks (as did some Allied Health Team members admit also), but there is an ongoing program with Curtin University and comprehensive reporting and briefing between teams.

Paul and his local contact Ramu, who is literally a lifesaver at times, are incredible with sourcing medical and postural aids within Trichy. They are also great in thinking outside the square by designing and constructing aids rather than going to a catalogue to order one. Having accompanied Paul on a couple of resource expeditions to many shops, I appreciate that India is a very challenging environment to source things and it is best to enjoy the ride and appreciate different approaches.

Cristy Norton, Dentist, Armidale, New South Wales
India Camp 2010 and 2014 volunteer