Wills Eye Global Mission Sierra Leone (week one)

Southern Eye Clinic, Serabu, Sierra Leone (week one)

These past two weeks I have had the honor of joining Dr. Cathy Schanzer and her husband Tom on a surgical outreach to the village of Serabu in Sierra Leone.  I should correct myself, it’s much more than just a surgical outreach.  Dr. Schanzer and her husband Tom have been going to Sierra Leone at least twice yearly for the past 15 years.  Their presence has expanded beyond eyecare in supporting community schools, churches, mosques and even developing a technology resource center. 

I soon as we hit the road from Freetown, the positive influence of their presence was immediately felt as we make multiple stops along the way to catch up with old friends.  Everyone in Sierra Leone seem to know “Tom and Dr. Cathy”.  We arrived in Serabu at around 9:00 pm the landscape was pitch-black until they turn on the generator.  The next morning, we went to catholic Mass which was a touching, and lively, affair.  Again, the positive influence their efforts through the Southern Eye Clinic are immediately apparent.  Our team members are all introduced to the congregation and an announcement is made about the clinic but everybody already seems to know.  In fact, everyone in Sierra Leone knows about the clinic as announcements have been made over the radio for the past several weeks.  (A side-note: in Philadelphia, I have even had patients from Sierra Leone tell me about the Southern Eye Clinic).  At approximately 1000 people, the population of Serabu nearly triples as over 2000 people (often accompanying their visually impaired family member) congregate in the village over the next two weeks.  There’s no Radisson in Serabu and while the village is small, the entire community chips-in by hosting patients from surrounding communities at their household.

Monday morning it begins.  Long queues of patients have already formed by 6 AM.  On surface it looks a little chaotic but as with everything there’s a system to madness which has evolved over the past 15 years and the head nurse, Sister Linda, has it all under control.

We see patients briefly in the morning (mostly post-operative patients) then try to get to the OR by 8 AM.  From there, it’s non-stop operating until the goal for the day has been met. This means many nights have gone past 8 or 9 PM.  Surgically, this has been the most challenging and rewarding experience.The training wheels are off and my focus from here on out is to improve on my surgical technique and to become more efficient. During each case, in the back of mind, is the reminder that the stakes are high with no room for error and no retina on backup so some complications such as a “dropped lens” (when the cataract falls into the back of the eye) are not an option.This, of course, meant my cortisol levels were at an all-time high during those first few days and by the end of each day I am absolutely exhausted.