by Vid Yogeswaran
When I was in the Tabo monastery in the Himalayas this past summer, I had this moment of clarity. I could see one road ahead of me, and at the end all I could see was that regardless of where it takes me, I wanted to connect patients and changing health perceptions on a global scale. We drove across mountain ranges, lost three tires, and got into five accidents in order to reach Tenzin. Tenzin was a young slender woman with a slightly wrinkled face and a pleasant smile. This was at our first clinic site, an hour away from Tabo in a makeshift health camp. In Spiti Valley, we were the only source of healthcare and we had more than 100 patients that first day. Spiti Valley, a desert mountain valley, has a distinctive Buddhist culture and is a favorite spot for the Dalai Lama. There were only a few physicians overseeing us, but we guided ourselves through the proper clinical steps. She told me her eyes burned and irritated her during the day, and through the physical exam I realized why. As she dropped her smile and uncreased her eyes, I noticed the yellow membrane over her left eye. It was thick and reminded me of the dark hue of her skin. Her diagnosis was pterygium, a benign mass caused from the scorching sun at the 15,000 altitude of her home in Spiti Valley. Now it was time for a treatment plan. I offered her saline eye drops and sunglasses, but she kindly said no thank you. I was confused and asked her why. She was newly married and did not want her husband or her village to think she was less attractive because of the big frames on her face. I wear glasses everyday even though my vision is okay. This is to make sure that I don’t lose the limited vision I have, after a childhood illness, through any accidents. Her reasoning struck a chord with me and I was not prepared to let her jeopardize her vision without sharing my own story. Fifteen minutes later, she went to the pharmacy smiling in her new sunglasses. They were a little large, but she still looked beautiful.
In a way, Tenzin was lucky. Tenzin would not be isolated and alienated because of her condition. Unfortunately in these cultural communities, that can be a common issue. I remember last year when I was visiting Sri Lanka and met so many individuals who had been ostracized because of their illnesses. To me, the saddest part is that it was never their fault. During the civil war my parents narrowly escaped, and the country transformed into a pool of blood where innocent civilians were regularly beaten and raped. For many of the individuals that are now labeled as “crippled” or “diseased,” it was directly due to the violence they faced. Like with my visit to Sri Lanka, my summer experience in the Himalayas helped me see that some of the biggest barriers to care are due to perceptions in society. I don’t think this is something we can change overnight, but through small changes we can start.
Vid, a second year medical student, is a member of the Mayo Medical School Social Media Committee. She is interested in internal medicine and is originally from London, England. Her hobbies include reading, travelling, and watching too much Netflix.