The University of Iowa

Spotlight on Fulbright: UI student Luke Juran makes a difference in India

December 21st, 2011

Fulbright-Nehru Grantee
Name: Luke Juran
Field: Geogrpahy
Home Institution: University of Iowa
Host Institution: Indian Institute of Technology – Madras

As a Fulbrighter to India, I knew that I was expected to leave an indelible impact on the villages in which I conducted my research. After collecting considerable data from post-tsunami villages in Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry, I was finally presented with an opportunity to reciprocate the kindness that the villages had bestowed upon me.

While visiting a home in Paravaipettai, I noticed a shy, yet inquisitive girl peeking at me from a distant room. After calling for her to join the interview, I was confronted with the reason for her reluctance to join the group: the young girl, Sangeeta, was suffering from a severe cleft lip and palate. Cleft lips and palates are deformities that occur within the womb. The deformity can be quite acute (difficulty breathing, eating, drinking, speaking, and social exclusion), but the remedial surgery is simple and extremely effective.

During my M.A. thesis research I had volunteered at Meenakshi Mission Hospital and Research Centre (MMHRC) in Madurai. MMHRC runs many noteworthy programs, one of which is conducting surgeries for Smile Train. Smile Train is a nonprofit that provides free cleft lip and palate surgeries to children around the world. Through donations, the organization trains local doctors to perform the surgeries and also provides funds to cover the surgery and patients’ travel, accommodation, and post-operative costs.

After consulting the family and contacting Smile Train at MMHRC, I sent Sangeeta and her mother on an overnight bus to Madurai to undergo corrective surgery. Sangeeta, six years old, belongs to a dalit community that was affected by the 2004 tsunami. Sangeeta’s family consists of her parents and a total of seven children. Sangeeta’s father was struck on the head during the tsunami and has been incapacitated and unable to work ever since, so Sangeeta’s mother and eldest brother must support the household economically.

The surgery was successful and the family is elated. Due to poverty, the family had planned for Sangeeta to endure the rest of her life with the deformity. Sangeeta used to be shy and was teased at school, but now she is more outgoing and her self-confidence is improving-she now enjoys smiling.

Shortly after Sangeeta’s surgery, I visited the post-tsunami village of Theti, where I met Poornaprakash, a six year old boy suffering from a cleft lip and palate. Poornaprakash’s cleft palate was so severe that he could not speak-he could only make sounds and actions. Furthermore, Poornaprakash was born with a hole in his heart, so his health condition is a constant matter of concern. Luckily, I was able to schedule a corrective surgery for Poornaprakash and it was very successful. Poornaprakash is slowly beginning to speak, and the family was ecstatic to hear him speak for the first time.

My interest in relieving the burden of cleft lips and palates continues, and I am now in the process of arranging a screening camp for MMHRC in Nagapattinam and Karaikal. Officials from Smile Train will identify cases, provide counseling, and schedule remedial surgeries.

My experience as a Fulbrighter has proven most rewarding, and it has aided my development as both a scholar and a global citizen. The Fulbright program enabled me to reach across national and cultural boundaries in an attempt to better the world through my academic and personal ventures.