By Nicole Penwill
Washington University in St. Louis Student
Summer 2010 (June 20 to July 30) Global Impact Fellow
The immediate sense of reward was incredible. I looked on as a bilateral cataract patient, only 24 hours after surgery, chased Ghanaian coordinator Ali as he playfully ran from her in front of the other 26 post-op patients. The woman, dressed in brightly colored Ghanaian block print fabric, her missing front teeth framed in an ear-wide smile, tested out her new eyes with Ali’s teasing. The other patients clapped their hands and laughed as they too discovered their renewed vision.
Just a day earlier, I had led the same woman into King’s Medical Centre, her hands on my shoulders, as I walked slowly leading her into the building. On that day she and the other blind, poverty-stricken patients received cataract surgery free of charge from Ghanaian ophthalmologist Dr. Seth Wanye. Within 24 hours, her vision would be transformed from only light perception to counting fingers and seeing everyone around her. In the weeks to come (after years of blindness and related dependency), she would regain the ability to see her family members’ faces and to function as a productive adult.
As a Unite For Sight Global Impact Fellow volunteer in the summer of 2010, I helped conduct outreach eye clinics in Dagomba villages outside of Tamale, in Ghana’s Northern Region. For several years I have pictured my future career as a physician working in developing countries, particularly in Africa. I have been anxious for my first experience abroad, so it was exciting to finally work in global medicine. I considered the experience a test to see whether living and working in Africa really would be something I would like to make part of my future. Could I handle fewer material comforts and limited food choices? Ultimately, I found 6 weeks felt too short and I was in no rush to leave.
In addition to gaining experience delivering care through an NGO, Unite For Sight’s collaboration with the Ghana Health Services allowed for an even more significant learning experience. From discussions with Ghanaian ophthalmologist Dr. Wanye, I learned about Ghana’s nationalized health care, how the government health care system pays medical personnel, and the role of public and private care. Through my Unite For Sight internship in Ghana, these additional opportunities to learn about health care fostered a greater foundation for me as I pursue a career in global health, one in which I will both see patients and work to improve systems of health care delivery in local communities. Having finished my summer internship with Unite For Sight, I am only more curious about variations in cultural understandings of sickness and variations in health care delivery globally. I have gained more confidence in the pursuit of my career goals, and I look forward to future medical work experiences abroad.