Volunteer Experience: Bringing Smiles and Making a Difference in Project Kodaikanal, India

Temple University student and FIMRC-Temple University Chapter member Shannan Lowe shares her experience volunteering with FIMRC at Project Kodaikanal, India. 

I have always been fascinated by medicine. Helping others brings a warmth to my soul that could not be brought about in any other way.

Ever since I was young, I have liked to make other people smile. Bringing joy to others brings me more happiness than I could give myself. As a scientist, I constantly think about what happens when we are gone. The conclusion that I have reached is that we leave behind our memories and stories in the people around us. I have tried to make a positive impact on the people I encounter in my life, and change them for the better. 

I chose to volunteer with FIMRC in particular because I absolutely adore children. They are our not only the cutest little creations on the globe, but they are also our future. If we lay a strong enough foundation for the youth of this world, then they too can make a bigger difference in the lives of people around them.

Traveling up the mountain to get to Kodaikanal was probably the most magical experience of my life. The driver told us to put down the windows, and immediately we were hit by a cool breeze that smelled like the forest, flowers, and the spices used by the street vendors on the side of the road. The views were breathtaking, and I couldn’t keep myself from tearing up. The road curved around the mountainsides and each new turn brought about a new scene for my eyes to take in. An archway welcomed us as we approached the city, which seemed to emerge almost out of nowhere. It had more color than I could fully comprehend. Each house was a different hue of the rainbow nestled into the green mountainside. I was overjoyed to call this place my home for the next two weeks.

While in Kodaikanal, I shadowed doctors and met some of the most amazing people. All the volunteers stayed at the guesthouse and got along swimmingly! We have already reconnected now we are back home and plan to stay in touch. 

For the first week of the trip, we shadowed doctors at both KHMS, a private hospital, and at the Government hospital. At KHMS we shadowed Dr. Arun and Dr. Sushyl. Dr. Arun was an orthopedic surgeon who taught us about X-rays: how are they taken, when to take them, and how to read them. Later in the week, we went to Cloud street to watch Dr. Arun sing and play his guitar for open mic night. The team that went to the Government Hospital got to witness a natural birth in the OBGYN wing of the hospital. The second half of the day was dedicated to going to the creches to give the children their monthly checkups. We measured each child's height, weight, and upper arm circumference. We gave them vitamins to boost their growth and immune systems as needed as well.

We also taught the children games and nursery rhymes. Despite the language barriers, they all caught on quickly. One little boy made me laugh because he kept unbuttoning his shirt, and the teachers kept re-buttoning it until finally, they pinned it together with a safety pin. 

Throughout the week, volunteers took turns traveling with the mobile med van to provide essential health services to rural communities. We learned a lot about the sociological aspects of healthcare in India, as well as worldwide. We were invited to have lunch at a girls boarding school, which was celebrating its opening. The people were all so friendly and welcoming, and they had the most amazing stories to share with us.

In the evenings, we spent time either making educational posters or shadowing in the FIMRC clinic at the guesthouse. The clinic was my favorite place to volunteer because it had the slower pace of a doctor's visit, but also the affordability of the government hospital.

During our free time over the weekend, our group decided to travel to the city of Kerala. We rode elephants, went on a river safari, and saw cultural shows that highlighted dance and martial arts. Kerala was very hot, but it was gorgeous! We did miss our beautiful Kodai mountains and were glad to return to what was now home to us.

The second week was spent doing more shadowing at the Government Hospital and the Van Allen Hospital. I quickly learned that things move at a much faster pace at the Government Hospital as physicians had to see as many patients as possible each day.  

The afternoons were spent conducting community surveys, which were clinical house visits to select families for monthly checkups. These families were non-creche families, and the medical care mainly focused on women's health. I recorded many weights and blood pressures, as well as learned little snippets of Tamil. I practiced my newfound vocabulary with children, and they laughed at my mispronunciations.

I learned so much about bloodwork, the different stages of pregnancy, how to read ultrasounds, and how to manage diabetes -- the most prevalent disease in Kodai. I also learned how to give an injection, and I got to assist in minor surgeries by holding flashlights!  

During this week we returned to the Kodai International school to play basketball and volleyball with the staff,  had a movie night, and, on our last day, went on the most physically demanding hike of a lifetime! As the 10 miles of hardcore mountain terrain gave way to the most beautiful place I had ever seen, I knew that every step was worthwhile. I think my favorite part of the hike was when we turned a corner and there was a massive wild water bison just chilling out on the path. We backed away slowly and then climbed up the hill a ways to give the big guy some room to pass through. It was exhilarating and terrifying at the same time.

We all became a close-knit family in the matter of a few days. I couldn't have asked for a better group of people to travel with, to live with, and to share these memories. On our last night in Kodai, we played some last rounds of cards, shared some final jokes, and made the most of every second. Every single person that I met on this journey has changed me for the better; the clinic nurses, Muthu (our beloved housekeeper), the doctors that we shadowed, the community, and the children. I hold them all in a very special place in my heart.

Life is too short, and moves way too fast. Everything in India seemed to slow down, and every second seemed to mean more. I want to try to slow down and make the most out of each day, in the best way that I can.

I never dreamed that I would get an opportunity to volunteer in another country and that I could make a difference in other people's lives the way that this trip allowed me to. I think that more people should get involved in this service trip, as it was more than just aid for the community in Kodaikanal, but it made me realize that the kind of joy that I got from helping, was far greater than any I had felt before.

Posted on July 24, 2019 and filed under India, Project Kodaikanal, FIMRC Stories, GHVP.