A Laguna Beach High School senior swapped her Bluebird Canyon home for a rural Indian town this summer.
Alia Manetta, 17, spent the month of August working at Sundari Mohan Seva Bhawan Hospital in the Northern Indian town of Silchar, an area known for its rice and tea farms.
While there, her bedroom was inside the hospital, where she slept on a plank of wood with a mattress on top, and netting around it as a mosquito protector.
During the day she assisted in gall bladder surgeries, hysterectomies, pelvic floor repairs, thyroid surgery and kidney removals.
Alia speculated she was doing the work of a fourth-year medical student, operating alongside doctors.
"Through watching, I learned how to do it," she said. "If I was about to do something wrong, they could make sure I wouldn't."
At first, she wanted to volunteer locally, but hospitals in Orange County told her she probably would be filing papers or answering phones.
"I was taken aback," she said. "I wanted to do community service that was purposeful."
Her mother, an account manager for a box company, encouraged her daughter to keep looking, even outside of California. She is raising Alia, whose father died from a heart attack when she was 8 years old, on her own.
When asked about her interest in medicine, Alia recalls the moment when she found her father after he collapsed.
"I always thought I could do something more to wake him up," she said. "I sprayed him with spray bottles, shook him, kissed him. It took me a long time to realize I couldn't wake him. I want to give somebody the opportunity to wake up."
Since then she thought about becoming a doctor. When Sundari Mohan Seva Bhawan Hospital showed interest, she jumped at the chance.
Having already traveled to India twice, Alia felt familiar with the country. She remembered seeing poverty firsthand while taking a hostel-jumping trip through the Himalayas with her mother in eighth grade.
This time, she organized the trip in August on her own. Her mother and grandfather chipped in about $2,000.
Chief of Surgery Dr. Kumar K. Das met her at the airport. For her first week, Das led her around the hospital, letting her shadow doctors in different departments.
The moment she arrived in the surgery room, she knew that's where she wanted to stay, she said.
She witnessed the gaping differences in medical care there. At an American hospital, a gall bladder surgery might cost $20,000. A modern hospital in India might charge $3,000, but where Alia worked it was $6 — and sometimes free. The doctors donate their time, she said.
People walk miles to get to the hospital, sometimes selling their belongings or going without food to afford care.
"These surgeons will work on them for whatever they can afford," she said.
When she wasn't in the operating room, Alia toured the area alongside Das, visiting an academy for the blind and a school for the mentally disabled. She wandered up into the mountains, handing out food to tribal children.
She returned home with an empty suitcase, handing out her clothing to those who needed it in Silchar, Alia said.
"I left the hospital thinking, 'How can I do more?"' she said. "I'm already saving up to go back this summer."
Alia plans to go every summer for as long as she can.
"I was just mesmerized at this story because she's so humble," LBHS Principal Joanne Culverhouse said. "It's just something she did that revealed her passion for humankind. Her purpose is just awareness."
Alia plans to go to medical school and perhaps study biology or neuroscience as an undergrad. She's applying to UCLA, UC Berkeley, Rice and Stanford universities, and other prestigious schools. She said her admittance depends on scholarship opportunities.
"When I was younger, I thought traveling gave me an opportunity to learn and see other things," she said. "As I got older, I realized it gave me the opportunity to learn about myself."
Donations can be made to Das' foundation:
Kumar K. Das Foundation, Attn.: Fund Adviser Kumar K. Das, 5 Castle Drive, Windsor, NY 13865.