Casual Conversation Leads to History-Making Surgery

An performing surgery in India
Dr. Jella An performs a MIGS surgery during a humanitarian trip to Manipal, India.

A passing conversation between doctors in the surgical lounge at MU Health Care’s Women’s and Children’s Hospital ultimately led to a history-making procedure halfway around the world in India.

Jella An, MD, assistant professor of ophthalmology, overheard Ashwin Pimpalwar, MD, professor of surgery and pediatrics, talking last year about his annual humanitarian trip to India. Pimpalwar had been taking a team of pediatric doctors with him for the past five years.

“He was talking about his mission trip,” An said. “I told him it sounded amazing and asked if I could go with him next time.”

Pimpalwar had never taken an ophthalmologist with his team in the past, so he invited An to join him for the week-long February mission to Manipal and Mangalore in the southwestern part of India.

But An didn’t want to just share her expertise with doctors overseas. She wanted to give them something they could use long after she had gone. 

“I was thinking, ‘How can I make this sustainable?’ Not just show them what I do, but give them something they can do.” 

An is a fellowship-trained surgeon in micro-invasive glaucoma surgery (MIGS), a procedure that decreases pressure in the eye to prevent vision loss. An wanted to bring that technique to her counterparts in India, complete with all of the tools to perform the surgery. She reached out to New World Medical’s humanitarian charitable product donation program. They agreed to supply more than $34,000 worth of blades and devices to support MIGS and tube implant procedures. An received the supplies just days before the trip.

“Everything happened very quickly, and then I packed up and went,” An said.

Once in India, An realized she had a lot of teaching to do – a learning curve to overcome in just one week’s time. She worked with the doctors at Kasturba Hospital in Manipal to help them determine which types of patients would be most appropriate for different MIGS and tube procedures, then led them through pre-op, surgery and post-op management. They worked 13 cases together.

“I gave a lecture and a wet lab session every day on a different topic,” An said. “Surrounding hospitals started to hear about me, and they invited me for an ophthalmology conference, where I delivered a lecture on micro-invasive glaucoma surgery. Now, they want me to visit their hospital next time we go. It was a very successful trip.”

What An didn’t know at the time was that she reportedly had performed the first MIGS procedure in all of India. 

“I’m surprised they didn’t have that resource until now because we’ve been doing MIGS for 10 years in the United States, and we are seeing great results and so many patients benefit from this safe surgery,” An said. “I showed them what I do, and what works for us. It was such a beautiful exchange of knowledge and patient care.”

Joining An and Pimpalwar on the recent trip to India were Sumit Gupta, MD, associate professor of orthopaedic surgery; Kelly Scott, FNP; and Ben Burch, MD, resident physician.

An has already committed to joining the group again next year. She hopes to raise enough money to present Kasturba Hospital with a new surgical microscope – a token of her appreciation for the lessons she learned on her first ever humanitarian trip.

“Starting something new is always hard,” An said. “I really wanted to go but had a fear of the unknown. But I was so glad that I went. I felt like I learned so much more than what I was able to give.”