Surgery Camp at Project Kodaikanal

The Plastic Surgery Camp at Project Kodaikanal occurs at the Pasam Trust Hospital each spring for one week, drawing hundreds of people from across India to seek care. Former Project Kodaikanal Ambassador Dorien Mul shares her experience from the 2014 Plastic Surgery Camp below:

At Pasam Trust Hospital in Kodaikanal, there is a yearly returning Plastic Surgery Camp that offers free surgeries for burn victims. A specially skilled Plastic Surgery Team from Germany will come over to Kodaikanal and stay for two weeks to perform surgeries in the hospital. 
When we arrive at Pasam Trust Hospital, on the first day of the Plastic Surgery Camp, we could immediately tell that this is not an ordinary work day. The amount of people that has collected around the entrance of the hospital gives away that something special is happening. For a passer-by, a quick glance at the crowd in front of the hospital would raise curiosity. Why is it so crowded at Pasam Trust Hospital? We walked from the road, downwards to the entrance of the  hospital, passing by the crowd of people. Apparently they were waiting for something and almost everyone’s focus was on something that was happening in the central hallway of Pasam Trust. When you look more carefully, more attentively at the crowd, one discovers quite quickly why all people are all waiting to enter the hospital. Some people have burns in their faces, others on other parts of their bodies. People were whispering and talking to each other. Besides the sound of whispering voices and traffic noises,  you could hear one of the doctors from Pasam Trust saying something through a microphone. The welcoming ceremony of the German Plastic Surgery Team had begun. After some speeches and a lovely dance, which was composed by the nurses weeks before the ceremony, the Plastic Surgery Camp was officially opened. 
The upcoming two weeks will be fully dedicated to provide the medically needed help to burn victims. The staff of Pasam Trust is strengthened by a group of student nurses from Coimbatore, a city that’s a few hours away driving from Kodaikanal. The main departments where we normally help out will be partly closed, since all the doctors are needed to give a helping hand during surgeries and also for the guidance of the patients. 
After the opening ceremony, when special candles are lit, speeches have been given, and the whole German surgery team received a colourful garland of flowers, one of the hardest and difficult parts of the upcoming two weeks started: the screening and selection of patients. All the doctors and nurses from Pasam Trust are helping out on this first day, to guide the burn victims and their families and to inform them about the selection procedure and the rest of the two weeks. Two surgeons of the German team take the time to talk to every person who came to the hospital. What happened, how long ago it happened and what can be done to improve bodily functions are the main threads in the conversations. With the help of a translator, the doctors are able to make a clear profile for every person to whom they speak with. It’s an intense day, not only for the German doctors who have to listen to and evaluate every individual story and judge the severity of the burns and for the people who travelled from all the corners of India. Some people have to wait the whole day in the hallway of the hospital for a meeting with one of the doctors. All the burn victims came to Pasam Trust with the same goal and hope: to get treated. Unfortunately the capacity of the hospital and the time span of the Plastic Surgery Camp make it impossible for the surgeons to help everyone. Children, teenagers and adults are all waiting for a simple ‘yes’ or  ‘no’ at the end of this selection day. It is a difficult selection procedure, since you wish to help out all the people who travelled all the way to Kodaikanal, but that is simply not possible in a short two weeks.  Not only bodily functionality, but also consequential social stigma are the main focus points of the doctors in the decision procedure. How realistic is it that a bodily function will significantly be improved after the surgery? How important is it that the face of a kid is being operated in order for that person to, for example, have a chance to get married later on in life? These are serious questions that should be considerate in a selection procedure as one during this Plastic Surgery Camp for burn victims.    
It is strange to see the hospital this crowded. People are standing and sitting everywhere in the hallway and outside of the hospital, all waiting their turn for a meeting with one of de doctors. At the end of the day, when every person and every burn have been evaluated, it is time for the German team to decide who will be operated and who will not. An operation schedule is made for the full duration of the Plastic Surgery Camp. 
When we arrive on the second day of the Plastic Surgery Camp, it is less crowded at Pasam Trust. The first patients need to be prepared for their operations. Since Pasam Trust is normally not a hospital where people have to stay overnight, it is strange to walk through all the rooms and hallways that are normally empty and now full of people. Patients are lying on their beds, waiting for their operation. Family and friends of the patients are sleeping on the ground or walking through the rooms, chatting with each other and sharing food. The first operations start in the early morning of the second day of the Plastic Surgery Camp. There are six to eight surgeries scheduled every day, depending on the severity of the cases. From early morning until late at night, the German team and the hospital staff will be occupied with performing surgeries. 
As part of the FIMRC team, we as volunteers are allowed to accompany Arun into the operation room once at the time each day. The operation theatre is behind a door through which I had never been since my time working in the hospital. The door is literally a barrier to another world, a sterile one, where everyone is wearing the same greenish garment and shoes. A noticeable thing is the music that comes your way when you walk into the operation room. For weeks I listened to the nice melodies and songs from the Tamil and Bollywood movie industries. The German surgeons brought their own music; James Blunt is reaching every corner of the two operation rooms. In the operation room, there was a concentrated and focused but also a quite relaxed vibe. We, as FIMRC volunteers, were able to observe and to ask questions during and after the operations. Sometimes we were able to give a hand or help out with some tiny procedures or tasks during the operations. I remember that after my first ten minutes in the operation room, on the second day of the camp, one of the German doctors pointed at me and asked me to come over. He handed over a bag full of air and commissioned me to press and release the press on the sack full of air for a constant period of time. I realized I was asked to take over the natural long function of a patient who was lying on the operation table for the time the doctor was busy with adjusting the dose of anaesthetics. It was interesting to see how a team of surgeons work together and to witness the procedures and all the things that these procedures entail. Besides being present during the surgeries, we were able to help out with the follow up care of patients, for example, when bandages needed to be changed.  
The Plastic Surgery Camp gave a valuable insight into the field of medical care for burn victims, how far technology is and what can be done to improve one’s life after a severe burn. It also gave a clear insight into the fact that a lot of people with burns in India can’t be helped due to economic and social situations. After witnessing the cleaning of a burn that was a couple of months old, with a fly hidden inside the wound, it becomes clearer and clearer that there is still a lot of room left for improvement concerning the availability and accessibility of health care in India. 
The Plastic Surgery Camp also gave a good insight into the lives of the people treated during the camp, since almost all patients needed to stay for at least a couple of days in the hospital for after-care. We were able to talk to a lot of people and get to know more about the lives of people, all coming from different places in India.

If you are interested in volunteering during the plastic surgery camp in 2015, the dates are March 17th-March 23rd. Email missions@fimrc.org to enroll today!