Reflections by an Ophthalmologist on Volunteering in Ghana

By Ophthalmologist Jim Patalano
Summer 2012 Global Impact Fellow

Volunteering as an ophthalmologist in Accra, Ghana, was a valuable experience that I would highly recommend.   Each day was filled with new and rewarding opportunities.  I spent two weeks during May involved in the Unite For Sight program there.  A number of the days involved outreach to poorer communities outside of the center of Accra, working along side a local staff optometrist, screening patients in temporary centers set up in churches and other fairly crude but adequate facilities.  During the outreach, we interacted with local people, the local volunteers, community organizers and Chiefs, and the patients, who were extremely appreciative of the attention and help.  Each day brought us to a different location, screening people with different languages and ethnic backgrounds.  We were supported by a number of other Unite For Sight volunteers, mostly college and graduate students interested in healthcare and public health careers.  Spending constructive time with these young, motivated student volunteers was also rejuvenating.  I planned my own volunteer program so that I overlapped with one of my own sons, a college student working as a medical outreach volunteer, so that we could work together.

A number of days  were spent with Dr. James Clarke at his dedicated medical office and surgical facility.  There, my role as ophthalmologist-volunteer was part visiting professor in the clinic and part surgeon.  But I was also a student in the operating room.  Dr. Clarke made a specific effort to have me see a number of interesting patients that were somewhat diagnostic or therapeutic dilemmas, which we discussed together.  We performed a large number of cataract surgeries using a sutureless extracapsular SICS technique.  The equipment and instruments were relatively modest compared to what we have available in the U.S. but adequate.   Even though I consider myself an experienced cataract surgery, I had previously performed this particular this technique, which was a little intimidating and created a new challenged.   I learned the sutureless extracap technique by observing Dr. Clarke perform several quick cases, and then performing surgeries myself.  The surgeries were successful, and I came away very fulfilled by the Unite For Sight experience.