KNOXVILLE — The heat and poverty of coastal India might not seem like a hospitable place to take two pre-teen American girls, but a University of Tennessee faculty couple did just that.
Dr. David Patterson, a faculty member in the UT-Knoxville College of Social Work, and his wife, Melanie McGhee, an adjunct faculty member, took their daughters Kaitlin and Hannah on a month-long visit to the Tansa Valley near Bombay, where a charitable group runs up a yearly clinic to treat cataracts and other eye problems of the region’s rural population.
“The girls saw so much. It’s really changed the way they see their own life here,” McGhee said.
Kaitlin, 12, helped serve food to the clients and staff of the clinic while Hannah, 11, carried water to the patients in the tents and escorted them to and from surgery.
“The children adjusted much more quickly than I did. They were very much at ease,” McGhee said.
Patterson, whose academic specialty is computerized data-gathering and management in the social services, was the project’s director of clinical statistics. McGhee, who is also a social worker in private practice in Maryville, collected case histories and interviewed patients and volunteers in the camp. The College of Social Work supported the effort by rearranging Patterson’s classes and other duties.
The clinic, called the Netraprakash 1999 Eye Camp, was sponsored by Prasad, an international charitable group that strives to improve human life by providing health services to needy peoples. An outgrowth of the Siddha Yoga religious movement, Prasad also sponsors programs in Mexico and New York state.
The rural population of India has little access to eye care, and many people with treatable vision problems remain handicapped, Patterson said. The camp, in its fifth year, provides cataract surgery for those who need it.
The organization set up a tent city in a dry rice paddy and put its surgery suites in an unused tractor showroom. Temperatures rose as high as 112 degrees F during the day.
“The cataracts are a tragedy not only for the person who cannot see but also for the family, which must provide someone to care for and lead the blind,” Patterson said. “The surgery restores their sight and makes a major difference in the quality of life for the whole family.”
That difference is one of the things Patterson is studying. In addition to serving the project and its clients and teaching his Indian colleagues new techniques in clinical data-gathering and record-keeping, the South Carolina native is doing research on the changes the camp’s patients experience after their sight has been restored.
Despite the hardships the UT family experienced, both parents feel that the adventure was valuable for their daughters.
“They had never seen a world where some people live in huts made of sticks and cow dung,” Patterson said. “It has to make an impact.”
“They realize, for instance, that they can use a washing machine. They don’t have to go stand in the river and beat their clothes on a rock,” McGhee said.
But the lasting impression on both parents and children has little to do with poverty and much to do with the respect the clients had for themselves and for others.
“The people were so gracious and inspiring in their own peacefulness and acceptance of their life’s circumstances,” McGhee said. “Seeing such amazing tranquility free and independent of their circumstances was the thing I brought home.
“We felt good to be a part of this expanding circle of generosity.”