(MyStory008): A Journey to the Unserved

My Story Episode 008 || © Vision Club 2020

October Eighth. And coincidentally,   it is the eighth episode of MyStory. Today is the  World Sight Day, the international day for eye health awareness celebrated on the second Thursday of October each year. No need to say, there are many cadres and leaders active in the field of eye health in order to reduce the global burden of blindness for the notable years of their career. So, today in this special occasion we are going to present you an inspiring story of one of the optometrists from Nepal who has done a really commendable job of serving an exceptionally disadvantaged group of refugees in Bangladesh in the last February. Happy WSD 2020; read the full story of Ms. Prativa Devkota and see the Hope in Sight.

Prativa Devkota, Optometrist

Ms. Devkota recounts,

It was my great privilege to receive an offer for me to volunteer at OneSight clinic in the Rohingya community, Bangladesh. I was one of the two optometrists (Dr. Sudarshan Khanal being the other) going to represent from Better Vision Foundation Nepal on that particular clinic. The clinic was scheduled for the second week of February 2020. My date of arrival in Bangladesh was 7th February. By then, the news of the COVID-19 outbreak had grappled media around the world as infections were being reported at an alarming rate. I had concerns regarding the conduction of camp as the volunteers arriving for the clinic belonged to several countries. Though there were no travel restrictions issued by Bangladesh then, I faced no issue at immigration but had to undergo temperature screening twice and few questionnaires at the airport. I was almost overwhelmed by my own insecurities if I could make it through, but it was relieving when I got out of the airfield where the Bangladesh land was welcoming me with a gentle soothing breeze. 

My heart swelled with gratitude for I had a national identity and a place to call my own country home.

By the midnight of February 7, all the team members had arrived and I was super-excited to meet them at the BRAC Center Inn in Dhaka. A quick introduction to BRAC would be helpful here. BRAC was founded by late Sir Fazle Hasan Abed in 1972 with a vision to bring about positive socio-economic changes in the life of poverty-stricken Bangladeshi citizens. The estimable leadership of Sir Hasan took the organization to greater heights inciting changes in the lives of millions of people. BRAC is one of the world’s largest development focused non-profit NGOs. It currently operates in eleven countries in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean. Reading his inspiring words in the hallways of the BRAC Center, I felt motivated and excited about the work I had come for. We wrapped up the day with a quick introduction with all the team members.

We took an early flight from Dhaka on 8th February to Cox Bazar, the site of the clinic. After nearly an hour we took off, I was captivated by the ocean and the unending sights of brown sand beach. We were about to land at Cox Bazar, the longest natural sea-beach in the world. A Bangladeshi co-passenger, noticing my excitement, enlightened me that it stretched up to 125 kilometers. For someone like me coming from a landlocked country, it was a sight to behold.

Enthused to be framed with the OneSight volunteers

We were greeted by our team leaders at the Cox Bazar Airport, finally meeting them in person after communicating with them virtually for a couple of months. We reached a resort nearby the beach wherein our stay was pre-fixed. A twin room was booked by the Onesight for me to be shared with a volunteer from India. After a sumptuous lunch at 1 PM, the organizing team instigated a formal introduction of all the volunteers at the hotel orientation hall. The team leaders took a detailed briefing of the action plan accompanied by the virtual tour of the camp. By the end of the briefing, I felt that the team leaders had toiled so hard doing the groundwork to bring this camp to fruition. They had screened 7000 patients from the refugees and host community following the Basic Eye Screening Test (BEST), the screening protocol developed by Dr. Srinivas Marmamulla, who was one of the clinical leaders of the camp. Within a week, reaching people’s doorstep, they could screen a large volume of patients. The introduction cum orientation lasted till it was evening and we ended the day after a group dinner. I was thrilled for the upcoming field days. 

Clinic Day 1: Setting Up The Gears

The team leaders had briefed that the area and community we were about to serve was fraught with uncertainties. Obviously enough, all participants but Indian nationals and team leaders required authorized visitor cards issued by the International Rescue Committee (IRC), which managed the campsite, to access the campsite. It was however bureaucratic red tape which prolonged our wait to get the required access card. The relentless effort from the BRAC team and one of the team leaders Mustafa, from Zimbabwe, came up with a ploy in fast-tracking the process and all of us finally received our access cards. It was already mid-day and only half of the team members were at camp. So without further delay, we headed to the camp right after we received the cards. Along the way, the view of the endlessly stretched coastline was mesmerizing. Nearly after an hour of traveling, we reached the area designated for Rohingya Refugees. 

As soon as we passed a gate that signaled the direction to Rohingya Refugee camp I felt heavyhearted as I was seeing people who were forcibly displaced from their own home and nation just for belonging to a religious minority. I witnessed something that I used to see only in the movies, an infinitely long parallel fence of people running on all sides of the camp. Encircling the camp were big white containers of relief materials labeled with logos of different organizations. The campsite was densely packed with thatched houses of woods and leaves with dull grey color housing 8,55,000 people. With the limited food supply and health services, and restriction to be within the camp, the misery of life was beyond one’s imagination.

Dr. Sudarshan Khanal busy in the clinic

Our team leaders heaved a sigh of great relief on seeing us there as they were struggling to manage the patient flow in the clinic. I took my place immediately on reaching the clinic area. I had two lady volunteers assigned to assist me in the clinic. The first one wore a long purple burqa with a beige shawl wrapped around her head. She introduced herself and further added that she was from Myanmar. The pride with which she stated her nationality was detached from the hard reality as her identity card openly identified her as a forcibly displaced national from Myanmar. My heart swelled with gratitude for I had a national identity and a place to call my own country home. And there was another lady, probably in her teens, with a red shawl covering all her face but eyes. First thing I noticed: she had alluring eyes. She hesitated to tell me her name. I introduced myself and briefed them on the help I needed. I took my first patient. He was a 65-year-old lanky man demanding glasses to read the Quran. I prescribed him near glasses. No sooner had I put glasses in the trial frame, he flaunted a huge smile, still vivid in my mind, when he could read the smallest letter in the near vision chart. I felt happy realizing that I could help strengthen the faith of someone who had nothing but faith in god. We had limited hours of access into the camp but we achieved more than our target for the day. 

The view of the horizon painted orange by the setting sun and verdant paddy field on the way back to the hotel always rejuvenated the tired mind after long hours of work.

Day 2: Catching the Spirit

It was so very satisfying a job!

As every one of us had campsite access, all of us started the clinic together at the designated hours. It was encouraging to see everyone working hard. We had our team leaders approaching us time and again to make us feel good and motivated. We were determined to serve the pre-screened patients because this was a great opportunity which we seldom get. Due to the long hours of standing, my legs would hurt but seeing people around me working with such cheerful faces pushed me to complete checkups on more patients. I wonder if those merry faces had a domino effect that all team members experienced the same anguish but downplayed them to complete what we had all came for. We had Vicki from Australia who was many years senior to me but she had the spirit and energy of a playful child which was infectious. I could hear the excitement of Welin at Dispensing table making patients wear their first pair of glasses. She had a different level of alacrity and I guess it increased with each passing day from the cumulative happiness of the patient. I could communicate with a few people who could speak Hindi. I came to know from volunteers that the community people loved to watch Bollywood movies and I could communicate directly with patients. The highlight of the day was the last patient I took for the day. After I completed prescribing the glasses, he shared with me that he had lost his glasses while fleeing from his native land in 2017 and was left visually impaired since then.

Day 3: Taking the Control

It was the final day at Rohingya Camp. We were rightly set to achieve the day’s target by the afternoon. It was around 1 PM and a few of our team members went for a quick lunch break. Seeing a group of clinicians exiting at once, the patients in the queue perceived that the clinic was being wrapped up without their check-up and created chaos. Our team leaders sensing the gravity of the matter immediately headed to appease them. However, their words fell into deaf ears and the situation was nearing uncontrollable. Maud Zeller, our team leader and IAPB Eye Health Hero 2019, did something so magical that the noisy crowd instantly was on their toes. When the patients did not respond to her earnest request she turned on music on her phone and started dancing to engage the patient. Her quick action worked so tactfully to calm down the patient.  Soon, there was an unprecedented peace in the clinic room. This was an amazing and an unconventional act of leadership I was fascinated to have witnessed. The action was impromptu and it worked so very well. 

Maud Zeller, the lady leader, Vision Care Heroine and IAPB Hero 2019

We finished our target number of patients at the refugee camp an hour earlier and had to shift our clinic to the next station. Everyone did the cleaning, packed the belongings nippily and passed it to load on the vehicle like while playing a relay game. It was time to pay gratitude to our volunteers. All of us were taking photographs with volunteers who worked so hard to make the eye camp a success. The volunteer who hesitated to tell her name came for the photograph. I was preparing my phone to take a selfie with her and right at the moment, she lifted the veil and I saw her face for the first time. She had a round face with a pleasant smile. I guess that was her way of expressing gratitude. The feeling I had was inexplicable.


Day 4 and 5: Wrapping Up

We set up our camp in the host community in Kutapulong village. We had enough space for each examination in different rooms. The availability of sufficient space made our work easier and the clinic was quickly set up. Afterwards, we started enrolling patients for the checkup. Two days in the camp at the host community went smoothly. We completed our target. The volunteers and the patients at the host community thanked us and we returned to our hotel.

It was February 13th, Valentine’s Day eve. Our hotel had planned big for Valentine’s Day and the hotel was adorned in a red theme. Onesight had organized a dinner for us. I enjoyed trying all sorts of seafood. The last day of the camp had a happy ending with a scrumptious dinner.

I could experience a striking difference in working in different communities at the same time. It was challenging and also worth learning to best utilize the available resources and provide the best services. The language barrier, limited working hours, level of patients’ cooperation, regular visits from high officials were challenges I observed as a clinician while conducting clinics at the refugee camp. Besides those, I came to realize that it took about 2 years of background work to organize the camp. It was my first experience of being in a foreign land for providing comprehensive eye examinations of referred patients after a systematic screening. I found the BEST protocol a low cost and effective way to do mass screening and provide quality service at the community level. Apart from professional learning, I met and became friends with colleagues from different parts of the world. All of them had their own share of struggle and inspiring stories behind them. One that inspired me the most was a colleague who had conquered leukemia. He could make work an instant fun and always wore an agreeable smile.

Wayne wearing a complacent smile!

I would like to thank Wayne Tennet, for choosing Better Vision Foundation Nepal as collaborative hands for an exemplary project, Maud for inspiring me to be a leader and cultivate networking skill, Dr. Sri for providing a different perspective of community eye health and to all my colleagues who participated in the camp from whom I got chance to learn something new. Also, I am thankful to my team at Better Vision Foundation Nepal for believing me and providing this great opportunity.


So, this is it. Hope you enjoyed Ms Devkota’s story. She graduated from Institute of Medicine; and is the Founding and Executive Board Member of Better Vision Foundation Nepal. 

If you want to share your story, please pitch us at: [email protected] or [email protected]. We would be glad to feature your story and let them spread to the wider audience.

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Click below to read the inspiring stories of:

Rajendra Gyawali, one of the first Scientia Scholar optometrists from Nepal

Dr. Sanjay Marasini, who has a major contribution in finding treatment of ulcers through UV light. 

Dr. Nabin Raj Joshi, who is involved in the optical industrial researches in the US

Dr. Sedinam Forfoe, Optometrist from Ghana, who shares his experience while he was in Nepal

Dr. Chundak Tenzing, a significant persona in global eye care

Suresh Awasthi, an optometrist who blends himself in to the society

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