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Sightsavers from the field

Good eye health services are vital, whether you live in Cardiff or Kenya

October 2017
Fynn meets programme staff during his trip.

In the summer, 16-year-old Fynn Helyar travelled to Samburu County in Kenya to see eye examinations, diagnoses and surgery.

The work he saw was part of Sightsavers’ Coordinated Approach to Community Health (CATCH) project, funded by the UK government (UK aid). Having had an eye injury and operation himself, Fynn understands how valuable sight is. Here is his story.

A chance to see Sightsavers’ work

When I had my eye surgery in Wales, my doctor was wearing a Kenyan belt. I asked where he got it: he told me it was from Samburu in Kenya, where he had worked on some eye health projects. It was therefore very special for me to go to Samburu. I saw some of the awful problems that the people there face and what Sightsavers is doing, with the support of the UK government, to stop the spread of trachoma and help restore the sight of people with cataracts.

On the day of the visit, my mum and I set off early for a very long drive north. We met Moses, Sightsavers’ Project Director for CATCH, in Nairobi in a petrol station while it was still dark. We passed through many small towns and villages, and several counties, on the way to Samburu. The terrain changed as we travelled further north: it became more arid, and there was more land between settlements.

Arriving at the first clinic, we were met by the Sightsavers team to be given a tour of the health centre. We heard what has been done with funding received from around the world, including UK aid – I was particularly impressed by the maternity ward, where I got to meet two newborn babies.

Outside the eye clinic were queues of people sitting waiting to be seen. We met an elderly woman waiting for surgery who agreed to let us observe: she didn’t look nervous, but she was quiet. She was covered in beaded necklaces and wore a bright purple blanket, known as a shuka, which she covered with a blue hospital gown. Her eyes looked pale, and we were told she had trachoma, an eye disease that can lead to blindness. She said it made her eyes itchy and sore.

Her surgery was very quick, lasting about 10 minutes. I hope the surgery was successful – they said it was – and that she will be prepared to come back for cataract surgery in a couple of months so she can see clearly again.

Doctors performing surgery on a patient

“I felt a connection with Lesumalle, despite our cultural and age differences”

We then went to meet a group of patients in the Maralal community who had had eye surgery a few months ago. It was great to see happy people who had successfully been through operations and could see again.

The next morning we witnessed a patient having her dressings removed following cataract surgery. It was amazing: she looked so happy. She was smiling a lot and laughing. I learned she had her other eye done later that day, and by the following day could see once again in both eyes. She makes charcoal for a living: she said she can now count her own money.

The person I remember most from the visit was a man called Lesumalle. I met him in the community in a compound, along with some of his neighbours – he was tall, with a red baseball cap and dark sunglasses. I remember him because he wore colourful clothing and was very smiley and happy. I was impressed by his openness and how he explained his situation before and after surgery. He mentioned that he’d suffered an old injury to one of his eyes, caused by a stick or thorn, long before he developed cataracts. Having had a similar eye injury myself, I felt a connection despite our obvious cultural and age differences.

Lesumalle explained that before he lost his sight, he used to work as a pilot – he was a parachuter. Before his operation he was dependant on others. I got the sense that he’s a very independent, fun man: I imagine it would be tough to have to rely on others to lead you around. He explained that whenever he needed to visit people, he had to be led by someone. The cataract surgery changed all that, though I noticed he still carried a long walking stick as well as his traditional small stick, known as a ‘rungu’.

We also met a young boy in one of the clinics. One of his eyes looked very different to the other, almost as though he had cataracts, but he was young – we were told he’d had an injury that resulted in him losing his sight in one eye.  Despite their best efforts there was nothing that Sightsavers could do about that eye, but the team were helping the boy keep his sight in his other eye. I was happy to hear this: I know how important eyesight is, and how essential it is to look after your ‘good’ eye if the other is damaged. I also learned that the Sightsavers field teams don’t operate on children who have cataracts – instead they refer them to paediatric ophthalmologists who are not usually based in the remote counties, but in Nairobi.

It’s amazing what has been achieved with UK aid, and how many people it has helped: without their eyesight, people can really struggle with day-to-day life, particularly in quite a harsh, poor environment. I feel privileged to have seen the work and the difference it has made to people’s lives.

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