I was able to document a beautiful ceremony called the Celebration of Sight. Eye patients who had received cataract treatments come together with medical staff to celebrate the restoration of their vision. I sat down with Keli Price, a ward nurse who helped the eye team with screening to ask her about her experiences in the clinic during the Togo field service. It was a humbling experience to hear of the patients backgrounds and all the hard work that the eye team had performed over the past five months.
Screening for patients was no easy task. Prior to Mercy Ships arrival, announcements would be made on the radio and flyers hung up all over advertising the eye screenings. Thousands of patients line up with the hope of being accepted for surgery. The eye team held two screenings a week for a month at a time. One day 1200 people showed up so the team had to add a third day of screening. If admitted its a huge time commitment for patients to receive treatment especially if they travel great distances. They come the day of surgery, a day of post op for bandage removal, a two week post op follow up then a final six week
The eye clinic had two goals in mind while admitting the right type of cataract cases: to restore sight and to train one of the very few local eye surgeons, Dr. Wodome. The ophthalmologists needed to find text book cases that would provide the least amount of complications during surgery and post operation. Dr. Wodome would then teach other eye doctors how to perform the surgery. Day Workers also receive experience operating eye equipment during screening and check ups so they are able to acquire marketable skills. Ultimately Mercy Ships wants to give local medical professional the tools and training they need to be self sustaining.
Because their goal was to restore sight to those who had poor or no vision, people with one cataract but one good eye were not admitted. Diabetics were also not admitted due to the fact that low blood supply to the eye prevents proper healing. Patients with Glaucoma would also be turned down due to complications that would arise during surgery. In addition to cataracts staff also looked for patients with pterygiums. This is a condition that occurs when the eye is trying to protect itself from over exposure to sunlight and dust by growing vascular tissue. If this tissue passes the mid point of the pupil, it is too late. Due to the heavy amount of pterygium cases, slots filled up quickly.
Though criteria was fairly stringent the staff did their very best to admit as many patients as they could. It was emotionally difficult for to turn away potential patients that couldn't be treated. Out of the 3099 people that were screened, 725 were admitted for cataract surgery and 103 received pterygium surgeries. This is still an impressive amount of life changing operations.
Most surgeries led to the restoration of sight. In some cases the cataract treament revealed that it was really a preexisting condition such as a damaged retina that had caused the poor vision. In these instances patients surprisingly weren't disappointed but rather thankful that Mercy Ships tried their best. The harsh conditions in West Africa create a culture that seldom complains about life's hardships. The patients' gratitude, despite the final results had been humbling for most of the eye staff who came mostly from Western countries.
Keli described an instance in which a patient thought her sight had improved but really hadn't. A local translator (who apparently was a bit overweight) scoffed at the poor woman, asking her why she thought her vision improved. The patient laughed and responded "Because I can see now that you eat too much!" Regardless of the difficult outcome, the culture often encourages thankfulness rather than entitlement.
While the series of screenings and post follow ups is a long process, the surgical procedure takes only four minutes. Dr. Wodome cuts through a few layers of cells and inserts a small lens into where the cataract had been. They dilate the pupil and center the lens right on top of that.
In the end, patients celebrate their restored vision. Its a joyful time of music and dancing. Day workers play drums and sing.
A patient turned to me and said in broken english, "I can see again. Today is a happy day." Tears rolled down her checks.
Sight is a gift that we must all be thankful for.
© 2012 Mercy Ships-Photos by Ryan Chen. Special thanks to ward nurse Keli Price for her gracious time in supporting the writing of this entry.