Our first Ladakh mission was ran under Global Clinic where we had a pioneer team of 9 non-medical volunteers and 3 optometrists on the trip carrying out primary health mobile eye clinics along the historic Indus River. The team went to 7 villages along the Indus River in Ladakh and saw more than 1200 patients along the Indus Valley all the way up to the Dha-Hanu, the last village before Pakistan and home to the Drokpa tribes (known to be the only living community of Aryans).
It all started with one thought – how can I create a meaningful journey where I could inspire others while being inspired myself?
After months on this quest, I finally came across a documentary about a group of doctors from a non-profit organization called Global Clinic that had the aim of bringing healthcare to underserved communities. When I heard that they were going to Ladakh, India, I signed up as a volunteer.
Ladakh is a high-altitude region in the extreme north of India, bordering both Pakistan and China. Poised at 3,500 metres in altitude and nestled amidst the snowcapped mountains of the Greater Himalayan range, it remains one of the most remote places in our world today with desert -like weather conditions. Many of the local inhabitants live in an untouched world, cut off from healthcare and basic amenities that we are used to.
I travelled to Ladakh in 2009 as an English teacher at a Buddhist nunnery and I left with an other-worldy experience steeped in beauty, culture and ecological harmony. Having made several trips back since, I decided to propose the idea of creating the first mobile eye clinic team under Global Clinic. Due to the high altitude and proximity to the sun, many of the local villagers and children had poor eyesight due to sun damage and with no access to any eye care or correction.
After 6 months of extensive planning, I found myself a team of 9 crazy volunteers and 3 doctors who were willing to ditch their high heels and cell phones in Singapore in exchange for sleeping under the stars and bathing in the wild. Never mind death-causing altitude sickness and extreme weather conditions, we had a goal and we were going no matter what.
Our task was to bring the mobile eye clinic to 7 large villages along the historical Indus valley, westwards towards the border of Pakistan. To reduce our carbon footprint, we trekked each morning from one village to another (a feat considering the lack of oxygen and extreme summer heat), allowing only 1 vehicle for equipment. Each day, we would set up in a different place – a village school, the local chief’s house or a village hall – where we would screen, assess and prescribe medicine, donated glasses and disseminated eye care education with a pair of sunglasses for eye protection.
By the time we reached the village of Dha-Hanu, the last village before Pakistan and home to the Drokpa tribes (known to be the only living community of Aryans), we had seen over 1200 eye patients within 1 week and we were pretty exhausted. We had several cases of altitude sickness and had a life risking bus journey with a bad driver. Why anyone would volunteer for something like this baffled me. Would I do this again? Absolutely. Not only did the perks include being invited to a village party every night with your team of local translators (which oddly enough, includes a PHD student, electrical engineer, physiotherapist and military man) and drinking chang, the Ladakhi version of barley beer, being offered the spiciest, creamiest most delicious cups of chai by your cook and at random villager’s houses, waking up and brushing your teeth to the most amazing view of the Himalayan mountains, sleeping under the stars and glorious moonlight but most of all, seeing the smiles of villagers and children, because now they can see better, after you have just given them a pair of glasses.
Every moment and memory of my experience in Ladakh remains an inspiration. We were touched by the warmth and kindness of the people, a triumphant story of human survival in the mountains with the dignity of maintaining their way of life and culture. It is these kinds of stories of human connections between people from different worlds, that remind me why I do this. All this could not have happened without the help of the doctors at Global Clinic and especially, my team of crazy volunteers, whom experienced first hand, the seeds of inspiration.
– Elizabeth Tan (TCRP 2012 Catalyst)