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Kashmira Chawla (seated left) and volunteer Puja Parekh set up a glasses distribution table with local kids.
Pre-med student helps advance eye health in India
Instead of setting her sights on a relaxing winter break, Kashmira Chawla, a junior in Drake’s College of Arts and Sciences, recently fulfilled her vision of volunteering in India for a non-profit organization dedicated to eye health. View photos from her experience in an online gallery. 

Chawla, a biochemistry, cell and molecular biology major from Urbandale, Iowa, recently spent two weeks in Chennai, India, working with Unite for Sight. Its goal is to empower communities worldwide to improve eye health and eliminate preventable blindness. 

“I became involved with this program because it gave me an opportunity to help provide medical services to very needy people in rural India,” said Chawla, who was born in and spent much of her childhood in India. “I’m interested in working with disadvantaged populations and global public health.”

Even before she departed for India in late December, Chawla was already involved. She raised $1,800 for the program, which provides free cataract surgeries, and collected 300 pairs of glasses to donate.

Upon arriving in Chennai, one of India’s largest metropolitan areas, Chawla joined other volunteers, the eye health camp manager, optometrists and an ophthalmologist to conduct eye health screening camps in rural and slum areas. They screened at least 100 people a day.

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Chawla, volunteers and ophthalmologists like Dr. Vinita (left), performed eye tests for more than 100 people a day.
“I did visual acuity testing and handed out glasses,” said Chawla, who hopes to become an internal medicine doctor and surgeon. “I also learned how to diagnose various eye diseases with the ophthalmologist, screened for cataracts and learned to use other optometric equipment such as a slit lamp.” 

She observed many cataract and general surgeries at Hande Hospital, and even performed a surgery — phacoemulsification cataract surgery on a goat’s eye, a practice surgery to remove the eye’s lens.  

Another project paired Chawla with the camp organizer to survey peoples’ perspectives and knowledge about eyeglasses, eye diseases and treatments. She hopes to use the survey conclusions to develop a simple eye health education program or display that can be presented during the camps.

In addition, Chawla and other volunteers interacted with kids from nearby slum areas. These children are supported by an after-school program organization, ARUWE. It provides children with financial assistance for education through college, free tutoring services, resources for their families and meals for the day.  

“We developed an entertaining and informational skit and eye health education coloring booklets to help the children learn about eye diseases and prevention,” Chawla said.

Her rewarding experience wasn’t without its challenges, however. 

“The local language, Tamil, was a barrier in communication,” Chawla said. “I confronted the challenge by learning Tamil phrases, using hand gestures, speaking in Hindi and always smiling.”  

“The people of Chennai and the children at ARUWE have touched my heart and strengthened my dedication to continue my education in the medical field and serve underserved populations in the United States and abroad,” Chawla added. “My trip wouldn’t have been possible without the help of all the donors and support from Drake. This was a life-changing experience.”