Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Beautiful Country ... And Eyes to See It

I (Beth) received two gifts during a road trip around Angola in December: a view of some of the most beautiful places in Africa, and the joy of seeing blind people see again.

I volunteered to travel with Dr. Steve Collins, a “retired” doctor who works with Christian Blind Mission in Lubango. Four times a year, he provides ophthalmology clinics and surgery to other parts of the country.

Steve was born in Angola as the son of missionaries, was educated in Canada, and has returned to Angola, the place that is “home” for him. He is the quintessential tour guide and Angola enthusiast. Our team also included Kumbali and Paulino, two ophthalmology technicians who taught me everything I know about eyeball anesthesia, upgraded my Portuguese, and made me laugh constantly.

We covered 3000 km in 3 weeks, through the most beautiful African countryside I have ever seen, on the worst African roads I have ever seen. We averaged 30 km per hour for hours at a time (that’s less than 20 miles per hour for the metrically-challenged.) Apparently it was the perfect time for travel – rainy season had progressed enough that the world had turned a magical green, but not so far that the tall grasses covered the views.

We worked in Kuito and Huambo – two cities devastated by the 27-year civil war. Buildings are still riddled with bullet holes, now 5 years after the war’s end. People’s faces in Kuito cloud over as they describe a period of nine months where no one left their homes, literally eating sticks and rats, and burying dead family members in their yards. Pillars along the roads demarcate areas where landmines are still present and travelers must stay on the road. Angola has the highest concentration of amputees in the world, with an estimated 70,000 people maimed by landmines.

The purpose of the trip was to see ophthalmology patients and do cataract operations for those who needed them. I prepared patients, did paperwork, and stuck large needles behind eyeballs for anesthesia. I also got better at seeing the retina, a skill I never quite mastered in medical school. As is always the case, some cases were terribly sad – a 3-year old girl with a tumor bulging several inches from her face, many people with optic nerve atrophy that we cannot explain. Many, many for whom we could do nothing.

But then there were the cataracts. Generally older people, brought in by young family members, often led with a stick. We would examine their eyes, take their blood pressure, stick tape on their foreheads to indicate which eye was to receive an operation, place the dilating drops. I would call them when we were ready, and have them take off their “panos”, African cloths that seem to be worn in unending layers. I would stick the needle in; there was rarely a flinch. I started up the generator for the microscope, Steve operated with Kumbali assisting, and in a few minutes the operation was done. The patient was led away by the family member to their mattress for the night.

Post-op ward

The next morning was the best. One by one, we removed the patches and asked what they saw. “My daughter!” “My grandson!” “White girl!” One 40-year old man saw his 1-year old daughter for the first time. Dancing and singing and praising God. It gave me chills every time.

So now they can appreciate the beauty of their own country again. Beautiful country … and eyes to see it.

The team relaxing: Beth, a local nurse, Kumbali, Steve, and Paulino