Ernest's Notes From The Field

An optometrist at Ghana's Crystal Eye Clinic, Dr. Ernest Awiti leads Unite For Sight outreaches that provide eye care to patients living in extreme poverty. Ernest documents inspiring and heartwarming stories about patients that he cares for in rural villages throughout Ghana.

Notes From The Field - #4

On a usual busy day at Tarkwa, a 12-year old boy reported for an eye examination. He looked dejected and apprehensive. His mum, who led him to the examination desk, had a similar look on her face. She had given up hope. She thought that her son would never be able to regain his sight after being visually impaired for more than a decade.  Apparently, Isaac had being living with cataracts for about 10 years. All of the health facilities they visited failed to provide them with the solution to his problem for various reasons.

The first question I asked myself when I saw him was can this boy benefit from an eye surgery? The problem with operating on kids who have been living with cataracts for such a long period is that sometimes the visual outcome will not be any different. This is because the visual system fails to develop very well and they become amblyopic (lazy eyes). We decided against all odds to send him for surgery, and we prayed for a good outcome. He reported to the clinic on the scheduled date, and when I met him in the operating room, I had a fascinating time learning so much from this little boy.
Isaac looked very different from the first time I saw him on outreach. He was happier, had a renewed sense of hope, and was ready to share so much with the staff working in the operating room. We had a long discussion about the impact of his visual impairment on his daily activities, his education and his future goals.

He started by singing an unfamiliar song from his own collection. He dreams of becoming a musician and a song writer. According to him, his dream was gradually being shattered because he could not read and write. I felt pity when he said that. He sang so well, and the lyrics were full of inspiration. He said that he was constantly ridiculed at school because his academic performance was very bad. He always sat close to the board, but was still not able to see what the teacher writes. His teacher, who was not aware of his problem, made matters worse by constantly maltreating him. He sometimes had to receive some strokes of cane from the teacher. He was repeated thrice in class because of his poor performance.
We operated on one eye, and the next morning, we were all thrilled at the tremendous improvement in Isaac’s vision. We quickly arrange for the second eye to be operated, and the result was as fantastic as the first.

I met an excited Isaac and his mother a month later on outreach when he came for his review. He could never stop thanking the team and Unite For Sight for the transformation that had occurred in his life. According to his mother, he could now work alone without any assistance, he could read and write, watch television from distance and could do everything a child of his age could do.

Isaac had one question for me. He said: “Doctor, can I go back to school now?” According to him, he could see everything, and he was sure that he could prove to his friends and the class teacher that he was the most intelligent pupil in the class.

He was grateful to Unite For Sight and everyone who contributed the funds that were used to pay for his surgery. He said: “May God bless them all.”

Notes From The Field - #3

In rural communities where access to eye care is rare, some eye conditions which eventually lead to blindness are left undetected. Sometimes, people are aware they have eye problems, but financial constraints coupled with lack of accessibility cripple their desire to have their sights restored. But in most cases, rural dwellers do not even know that they have vision problems. The most unfortunate aspect in this circumstance is kids having to stop schooling because of poor academic performance related to their visual impairment.

Some teachers are able to detect children with visual impairment and refer them to the appropriate health facilities for intervention. This is not usually the case with rural communities because teachers there do not receive the periodic training by eye care professionals which enable them to detect and refer children with eye problems. Eleven year old Emmanuel, from a village called Dabala Junction, was visually impaired for 6 years (according to his mother). He went through kindergarten and Stage 1 without teachers and parents noticing that he was visually impaired. In stage 2, he was consistently repeated in class because of poor academic performance. All of his classmates are currently in stage 5, but as a normal practice, students who fail to make a required mark are repeated until they are able to do so.

Emmanuel was constantly scolded by both parents and teachers because he could not read and write well, and he was always last in class. It never occurred to any of them that he had visual problems until he asked permission from the teacher to be allowed to sit in the front row in class because he could not see very well from far. The teacher informed the mother that he could be having a vision problem and that he therefore should visit an eye care professional. Emmanuel was brought to our outreach during one of our visits to that community, and it was detected that he had bilateral cataracts. His vision was very poor. Two weeks later, he had cataract surgery at Crystal Eye Clinic, and the procedure was sponsored by Unite For Sight.

When we went back to the village to review previous surgical cases, we saw a happy Emmanuel playing with other kids who were waiting to be attended to. The mum was so thankful and was astonished at the sudden change in her son’s life. She said “Emma can now see and he does not knock his head against the door anymore.” Emmanuel confirmed that his vision had improved tremendously, and he could not wait to get back to school. He said that he previously could not play soccer at school because he could not see very well, and other kids constantly mocked him because he was “Stage 2 father.” He said that “when school re-opens, I will prove to them that I am a very good student.”

Notes From The Field - #2

I have come across several cases where children had to stop school to guide family members who are blind. For those who have had the pleasure of benefiting from Unite For Sight's programs, the children were able to go back to school and continue their education. For the unlucky patients who are permanently blind, it takes a lot of couselling and persuasion before they accept to release the children to continue their education. Such was the case of a patient we met at Okagyakrom in the Jasikan district of the Volta Region.

Prevalence of blinding eye conditions in Ghana is always higher in rural communities because of the lack of access to eye care. I always get disturbed when visiting a community and seeing patients who are totally blind from glaucoma. Glaucoma causes irreversible blindness, but detecting the condition earlier and managing it would greatly reduce the chances of an individual going blind from it.

Sandra led her dad to one of our monthly outreaches to Jasikan with high expectations. She had learned that Unite For Sight had assisted a lot of people in her community by providing free eye care services including free sight-restoration surgeries. Unfortunately, her dad was blind from glaucoma, and it was impossible to help restore his sight. This was no news to the man, as he was informed by an eye care professional ten years ago that he would go blind if he does not go for regular check-ups. It was detected that he had glaucoma and was prescribed some anti-glaucoma medication to lower the intra-ocular pressure. Since it was expensive to make the 5-hour journey to the eye clinic, however, he stayed in his village and resorted to the use of some traditional herbal preparations. This did not work for him, and he eventually went blind.

Sandra broke into uncontrollable tears on hearing this. She said that she has had to stop schooling for 3 years because she had to take care of her dad. Her mum had to work on the farm to provide their daily needs, and she was the oldest of three children. Because of the situation, she could not complete her high school education. The family preferred that she stayed at home and help her dad move around. Fortunately for us, there was a man from Sandra's extended family who was around to have his eyes examined. We talked to them about the need to relieve her of those responsibilities so she could get back to school. The man promised that he would consult the other members of the family on how to take care of the dad and the need to have Sandra in school. We followed up on the issue the following month, and we were excited to learn that Sandra had gone back to school. Although we were unable to restore her dad's sight due to his irreversible condition, we were satisfied for helping the young lady get back to school.

On the streets of Accra, seeing blind people being led by children to beg for money from motorists and pedestrians is a common feature. They feel that is that is the only way they can make a living. They don't realize that they are depriving the children of their right to an education. The children are exposed to several dangers in discharging those duties. Harsh weather conditions and motor accidents are some examples.

Unite For Sight has indirectly contributed to the enhancement of education in Ghana. Children who at some point had to lead the blind have been able to get back to school because the blind are seeing. After regaining their sight, patients are able to support their children's education. Children who thought that they could never see have benefited from surgeries and are now attending school. Others had difficulty learning because they could not see clearly at school, but they now received glasses and are doing well.

Notes From The Field - #1

I always wish there will be an opportunity where I will be able to take volunteers to the home of beneficiaries for them to appreciate the impact their contributions make. It is so amazing. We thank them so much for the continuous support and their dedication to helping improve the lives of people they have never met before.

Because of our practice of extended family systems, the dependency on the working group is always high. Unfortunately, this group of people are confronted with visual problems which render some of them unproductive. The accompanying financial burden on the entire family is overwhelming and poverty becomes the inevitable consequence.

This always reminds me of my encounter with a couple at Jasikan. It was our first day of outreach in Jasikan, and 350 patients were already registered to be seen. I saw this couple, a man in his early 50's with his "blind" wife who was 50 yrs. The man was guiding the woman around because she was virtually blind. I could see from distance that the woman had bilateral hyper-mature cataracts and would benefit greatly from cataract surgery.  I examined her and booked her for cataract surgery which was sponsored by Unite for Sight. After a month, I went back to the same place and I met an interesting scene. The man from a distance pointed at me and exclaimed "that is him" and his wife run to me and just embraced me. I was close to tears. She was singing and dancing all over the place for her "miracle". She was now seeing. The first question the man asked me was "can she start working now?" It was amazing!

The man shared with me the kind of hardship the whole family had to go through because of his wife's visual impairment. He was the only one working on the farm to sustain a family of 8. He could not do much work because of the additional responsibility of taking care of the woman and helping her to move around. They were made poor because of the woman's situation. She was blind for about 6 years, according to the man. She is now able to support the family, and her kids, who had to stop schooling but are now happy to continue their education.

This happens each day. More families are gaining their financial freedom and are realizing their full potential because of the support from Unite For Sight. Many have nowhere to go because the services are unavailable, and those who live in the cities who do have access are just not able to afford it. 

Many lives would perish without the support from Unite For Sight and we are always thankful for every effort made.