Medical Eye Center Drs. Matt Oliva, Paul Jorizzo, and Paul Imperia have all traveled to Ethiopia on medical missions to help cure blindness. They work with local populations suffering from cataracts, glaucoma, and other eye diseases. They also help train local doctors in regional hospitals. Medical Eye Center’s Keith Shirley has also traveled to Ethiopia, offering expert training in biomedical maintenance to five different local hospitals.
Dr. Oliva’s 2016 Expedition
Working with three Ethiopian ophthalmologists and their teams from all corners of Ethiopia at Bisidimo Hospital in Harar, Dr. Matt Oliva completed 1336 cataract surgeries in 6 days. Nearly 40% percent of the surgeries were on patients who were bilaterally blind and over 40 children had their sight restored.
Scenes of profound joy were evident each day when close to 300 eye patches came off. The most memorable patient was a 30 year old woman who had been blind for 10 years. She had six children, three of which were surviving. As her eye patches came off she was able to see her 8 year old son and 9 month old son for the first time. The elder son was beaming, as he was able to imagine for the first time a life free of his mothers blindness. Each morning ended with the patients and their families dancing in spontaneous dance circles.
There is a huge influx of new doctors choosing ophthalmology in Ethiopia. Investing in training over 50 residents and their staff will be critical in the next few years. “Our local Ethiopian team is doing a fantastic job,” says Dr. Oliva. “Word of our our work is spreading. I am so proud of our team and how we are making a difference. In 2016, the Himalayan Cataract Project sponsored just over 10,000 surgeries. Thanks to everyone for their support!”
Below are three stories about children and young people who have been helped in Ethiopia.
Himalayan Cataract Project
December 12, 2016
Fifteen year old Eskedar Haji faced insults, bullying and discrimination after he became blind 6 years ago.
When we talked to Eskedar the day he regained his eyesight. “I couldn’t go to school since there are no schools for blind children like me,” says Eskedar. “I was not able to walk alone and also not happy that I had to depend on my brothers and sisters to move from place to place when I needed. I felt useless. Nothing but a burden to everyone.”
Eskedar was one of 40 children who underwent surgery during a cataract campaign in Harar. Working with local partners, the team provided over 1200 sight-restoring cataract surgeries in six days.
“It took me for a while to believe that I can see. I thought I was dreaming. I am so very happy,” said Eskedar,. His father, overwhelmed by happiness, was shouting from a distance saying, “This is a special day in my life, I will consider it his new birthday.”
Dr. Matt Oliva oversees the Himalayan Cataract Project’s Ethiopia program. Dr. Oliva left a strong impression on Eskedar. “I can’t thank enough the ferenji (foreign) doctor who operated on me and all the hospital team. I will always be grateful to him and the others for restoring my sight and giving life back.”
With many other patients laughing and singing in the background, Eskedar realized his life would be different from now on. “I can’t wait to join other children at school now. I willl walk among them with pride. I will study hard and become an eye doctor.”
Dr. Oliva has noticed the increased interest
Himalayan Cataract Project
December 16, 2016
Eight-year old Nunu Weleye came to the cataract outreach campaign organized by the Himalayan Cataract Project in December 2016. She came with her father, traveling from the district of Kurta Challa, Ethiopia. Nunu was just one year of age when she lost her eyesight. At birth, both of her eyes were affected by congenital cataract, causing her eyesight to quickly deteriorate. She became completely blind as a toddler.
During this particular campaign in Harar, over 1200 people regained their eyesight and Nunu was one of 40 children who underwent surgery. Before her bandages were taken off, we asked her to tell us more about herself and what it was like to live in blindness. Nunu recall, “I had to depend on my family to walk and move around. In most cases, I preferred staying at home the whole day. I had no chance to go out and play with friends. They would not let me play with them even if I wanted to because of my blindness. Everyone laughed at me.”
Young children with disabilities living in remote regions of the world often carry the additional burden of stigmatization. There is little to no infrastructure available to accommodate special needs, so many children are destined to live in isolation.
“I was not given a chance to go to school because I am blind. No one bothered to help me. I used to cry every time I heard children talking about school and I was always worried about what will happen to me in the future.”
Nunu’s father stood by her side throughout the whole process. The morning after surgery, when her bandages were taken off, Nunu felt very confused. “I couldn’t figure out what I was feeling at first. At the beginning I was shocked, because I never thought I would see again. Now I am the happiest girl in the entire world and I can’t wait to go back home and show all my friends that I can see just like they do. I know they will let me play with them this time. I also want to go to school. I am so excited.”
The blindness of a child is a hardship and burden for the whole family. Taking care of a blind child becomes another job and often requires another family member to care for that child—detracting from the caregiver’s ability to work or to attend school if they are a sibling. At her young age, Nunu already seemed very aware of this fact. “My parents suffered with me all this time. Now a time has come for me to pay them back. I am going to help them in every possible way from this moment on. I am so thankful to the doctor who gave me my sight back. Thank you!”
Himalayan Cataract Project
December 14, 2016
Since losing sight in his right eye several years ago, 13-year old Henok Lema from Kulbi, Ethiopia, had almost given up on his dream of becoming an engineer. His poor vision was holding him back in school and he was no longer able to perform as well as his classmates. Even his mother, witnessing the struggle, was discouraged and suggested that he leave school. Henok started to lose hope until something unexpected happened. Someone came to speak with his mother and told the family about an upcoming cataract surgical campaign—something unimaginable for them.
“When I learned that my mother was talking about a surgery event at Bisidimo Hospital in Harar, I had such a strong feeling that a time has come for me to leave my problems behind,” said Henok.
We wanted to know more about Hedok’s life and asked him about the difficulties he faced after he became blind in one eye. “My friends made fun of me because of my condition. They would call me ‘One Eyed Boy.’ Everyday I felt troubled and ashamed because I wan unable to see with my right eye. I had difficulty seeing from a distance and seeing objects on the right side.”
“Because of the bullying I lost interest in playing with my friends and did not like going to school anymore. My mother saw all this trouble and advised me to drop out of school. But I found it difficult to quit my dream to become an engineer so easily and I kept going. It wasn’t easy to go to school being in such a situation, and sometimes, I was seriously considering my mother’s advice.”
The day after his surgery, as his bandages were taken off, Henok shared his excitement, and said he couldn’t wait to find his friends and tell them the good news. “I will regain the respect I had before becoming blind,” Henok said. “I am so grateful to my doctor and always love him for fixing the problem I had with my right eye. Thank you!”
Restoring Sight in Ethiopia
Photographer Amanda Conde had the opportunity to witness cataract procedures that treated the blind in Harar, Ethiopia. Dr. Oliva was one of the doctors performing the life-changing procedures. Click to view the full story on CNN iReport.
Expert Training in Biomedical Maintenance
Maintaining ophthalmic equipment is vital for any hospital, especially where services are few and far between. Keith Shirley, Medical Eye Center’s biomedical engineer, recently traveled to Ethiopia to provide two weeks of training to local biomedical maintenance technicians. On behalf of the Himalayan Cataract Project, Keith worked with nine local technicians at five institutions to examine equipment, make repairs, and provide hands-on guidance and training. Read the full story here.
Accelerate Ethiopia is an event that brings people together who are dedicated to Ethiopia’s health and prosperity. Particpants will join ultra-marathon runner Scott Jurek and Ethiopian running superstars Gebre Gebremariam (winner of the 2010 New York City Marathon), Werknesh Kidane (world cross-country racing champion), and Haile Gebresalassie (two-time Olympic gold medal winner in the 10,000 meters) on a race in the rugged Gheralta Mountains, home to some of the world’s oldest Christian churches. The event offers participants a unique opportunity to train and race with some of the world’s best endurance athletes in one of the most stunning trail running settings on the planet. The runners will then join the Himalayan Cataract Project to participate in a high-volume cataract program where 1,000+ sight-restoring surgeries will be provided to local residents. Medical Eye Center’s Dr. Matt Oliva will work with Ethiopian eye care providers and the volunteer team to perform the surgeries. Participants will spend three days working with patients pre- and post-operation where they will witness people—many who have been blind for years—having their sight restored. Learn more at Acelerate Ethiopia’s website and at Outside Magazine online.
Dr. Jorizzo’s 2012 Expedition
In January 2012, Dr. Paul Jorizzo returned to Ethiopia, this time with his daughter Kristen. Working with the Himalayan Cataract Project, an international aid organization whose mission is to cure blindness in underdeveloped regions of the world, Dr. Jorizzo assisted in two campaigns. In the first, at Quiha Hospital in Makele, he participated in a high-volume cataract surgery outreach camp. Then, at Gongar University, Dr. Jorizzo saw patients in a private practice setting, where he provided instruction in glaucoma management.
At remote Quiha hospital, Dr. Jorizzo worked with Ethiopian ophthalmologist Tilahun Kiros, MD and was assisted by several highly skilled local nurses, along with an ophthalmology resident from Addis Ababa. Working long hours with few breaks, the team performed 425 eye surgeries in just four days. His daughter Kristen was in charge of guiding and positioning patients and patching their eyes after the procedure. Almost all the patients were suffering from cataracts. “Patients were overjoyed with their vision right away,” says Dr. Jorizzo, “Our team restored sight to hundreds people whose blindness was not only devastating to them as individuals, it was also a burden on their families.”
As the only ophthalmologist in a large, extremely poor region, the overwhelming needs of the community place a heavy burden on Dr. Tilahun and Quiha Hospital. Fortunately, the new facility is adequately equipped to house and process the number of patients who are treated. Dr. Jorizzo found the nursing staff to be well-trained and highly efficient. “They are truly a joy to work with,” he says, “and Dr. Tilahun is a great surgeon. His dedicated team is well suited to address the complex cases at Quiha, and they work tirelessly to achieve good surgical outcomes, despite all the challenges.”
Gondar University Hospital was a completely different experience from rural Quiha. With many more doctors to serve far fewer patients, the University has dedicated two floors of a new building to ophthalmology. The faculty includes five ophthalmologists, all with sub-specialty interests. There is also an ophthalmology residency program and an optometry school. Dr. Jorizzo consulted with local medical professionals on glaucoma patients for three days, beginning with a lecture to over 30 ophthalmologists, optometrists, residents and ophthalmic nurses. He then proceeded to the operating room where he oversaw nine glaucoma surgeries each day. Dr. Jorizzo was impressed with the skills of doctors, students, and nurses alike. “Everyone was easy to teach and had very good surgical skills. It was an important opportunity to further my personal mission of improving the understanding and treatment of glaucoma in Africa.”
“Our surgical expedition to Ethiopia was extremely fulfilling on many levels,” reports Dr. Jorizzo, “but sharing the experience with my daughter was particularly special. Kristen worked very hard, and her energy and drive was contagious. She also took amazing photographs of the patients and our experiences with them. We spent the long flight home planning our next Ethiopia expedition in 2013.”
In November 2009, Dr. Matt Oliva and Dr. Tilahun Kiros Meshesha oversaw an important eye care intervention in Mekele, Ethiopia. At this cataract workshop, 598 patients received sight-restoring surgery and Drs. Oliva and Meshesha also performed ten corneal transplants on bilaterally blind patients.
Earlier the same year, Dr. Meshesha received advanced training in the U.S. from the doctors at Medical Eye Center. Dr. Meshesha is one of the highest volume cataract surgeons in Ethiopia, providing critical eye care in the Tigray Region of his home country. “Dr. Meshesha is becoming an excellent transplant surgeon. He’s now much better equipped to meet the incredible need for corneal transplantation in Northern Ethiopia.”
The amount of corneal blindness in Ethiopia is staggering, primarily due to Vitamin A deficiency as well as measles, trachoma, trauma, and infection. “All of the transplants we did were on bilaterally blind young patients,” says Dr. Oliva. “Before surgery, one boy was totally blind and had to be led around by others. After the surgery, he was smiling and could get around by himself without help. I think it is vitally important that we continue to support the Ethiopian Eye Bank and it’s individual surgeons.” Learn more at the CureBlindness website.
National Geographic Adventure
The December 2009 / January 2010 issue of National Geographic Adventure magazine features a cover article about Dr. Geoff Tabin and his 2009 Himalayan Cataract Project cataract workshop in Mekele, Ethiopia. Dr. Tabin serves on the board of directors of the Himalayan Cataract Project with our own Dr. Oliva, and he worked alongside local ophthalmologist Dr. Tilahun Kiros Meshesha, who received advanced training at Medical Eye Center. Read the full article at National Geographic.
Watch a short video of post-operative cataract patients in Mekelle, Ethiopia as they celebrate the gift of sight with their community.