During her trip she met eight-year-old Suborna and followed her journey from blindness to sight. Here she shares her experience of seeing how Suborna’s life was transformed in just a matter of days.
It was monsoon season in Bangladesh, and we’d experienced a lot of difficulty travelling on the rural roads, which are often mud tracks. As we bumped down a muddy, narrow, raised path through paddy fields while sitting on the back of a rickshaw, I was convinced we would end up in the water.
Suborna lived in a rural village a couple of hours’ drive from where we were staying in Mymensingh, in the north of the country, so we knew we had a long and potentially difficult journey ahead of us. After an hour and a half, we reached the narrow mud track that led to Suborna’s village. The track was too narrow and muddy for our car, so we climbed into two auto rickshaws, like the one in the photo below, for the last few kilometres of the journey.
At one point the track was so muddy we had to get out and watch as the driver and two friendly villagers pushed the autorickshaws out of a deep muddy hole – they refused our repeated offers to help.
When we arrived, we were greeted by Suborna’s mother, Shilpi, and father, Sultan. Suborna seemed nervous at first, and stayed close to her parents. They told us they’d found out that Suborna was struggling with her eyes when a doctor had visited the house two years ago.
However, the family had gone through a series of tragedies and they hadn’t had been able to find the money or time to follow up and get treatment for Suborna’s cataracts. So her sight had been left to deterioriate until she struggled to see much at all.
Suborna had fallen behind in school: she couldn’t see the board to learn and progress, so was stuck in a class with children three years younger than her. Her parents were clearly worried for her education, and Shilpi told us: “She cannot continue in education because her eyesight is too bad.”
Suborna had developed a habit of cupping her hand around her eye and squinting to try to help her focus, but she was still unable to read or write.
A little later, when the rain stopped, we sat in the muddy courtyard outside Suborna’s home. Some of her cousins were playing a makeshift game of cricket. Rather than joining in, Suborna cautiously wandered over to a wooden post in the yard and held on to it as she listened and tried to watch her cousins playing.
Her parents told us that since her sight had started deteriorating, she would often hold on to something like this to feel more secure in her surroundings. She had also started spending more time indoors – especially as the other children at school had begun to tease her and exclude her from games.
A couple of days later we saw Suborna again at Mymensingh Eye Hospital, where she was scheduled to have her first of two cataract operations. She’d travelled with her grandmother as Sultan couldn’t afford to take time off work and Shilpi needed to look after her younger son. Here we learned about the incredible team of doctors and nurses who work tirelessly to treat hundreds of children like Suborna every year.
When we arrived we found Suborna waiting patiently with her grandmother in the hospital ward. She seemed nervous and reserved, and lay silently as the anaesthetist performed her pre-operation checks.
We then met Dr Salam, the surgeon who would be operating on Suborna. He has been at the hospital for 25 years, and has worked as a paediatric surgeon for the past 13. We were amazed when he told us he does as many as 35 adult surgeries and 10 child operations every week.
“There are so many children who need help and they are the future of our nation,” Dr Salam told me. “I believe they should receive good care for their eyes. When they see after one day, it makes me feel so glad. That’s the best part of the job.”
On the day of her operation, Suborna spent most of the morning chatting to Sumaiya, another girl also scheduled to have surgery that day. Their grandmothers seemed to have formed a bond and were helping each other to deal with the nervous wait. We left them in peace to prepare for their operations.
The next day, we were back at the hospital to see Suborna’s bandages removed. Dr Salam told us her surgery had gone well and he was confident of a good outcome.
The operation and anaesthetic seemed to have taken its toll on Suborna, and she sat quietly as the nurses started to carefully remove the bandages.
Once the bandages were off, Suborna slowly opened her eye and cautiously started looking around the room. A child’s eyes can often take some time to fully adjust to sight after having their cataracts removed, but even in these early stages it was clear she was seeing more than she had for years. Dr Salam checked her eyes carefully and did some initial sight tests before confirming the operation had been a success.
As the minutes ticked by, Suborna slowly started to brighten up. “I couldn’t see clearly. Now I can see more clearly. I am feeling happy,” she told us.
Later in the day, Suborna was able to catch up with Sumaiya – who had also had her bandages removed – and they quickly picked up where they had left off, giggling and smiling.
Children who have had cataract surgery are kept in hospital for a couple of days to allow them to recover from the general anaesthetic. So it was two days after the surgery that we visited Suborna in hospital for her final check-up.
Suborna was still quiet as she sat in the examination room with her grandmother and the other children, as she waited to have her eye checked by Dr Salam as the first part of the discharge process. But she was clearly more relaxed and we started to see little glimpses of a more confident girl.
Suborna and her grandmother travelled home later the same day, and invited us to pay them another visit the next day. The roads were no easier to negotiate than a few days before, but I was full of optimism and excitement to see how Suborna was getting on.
From the moment we arrived at her house Suborna was looking far more confident and relaxed. We asked if she could see better and she replied enthusiastically: “Yes, I can!”
Just a few days earlier she had struggled to join in with the other children playing, but now there was no holding her back from taking part in a local game of kut-kut – a game similar to hopscotch.
Later, while I sat talking to her mother, Suborna kept looking at me and drawing closer. I kept reaching out to tickle her while pretending not to look and Suborna would bend out the way before I could touch her, giggling. But then she’d be right back, enjoying the game. The difference in this once shy little girl who hid behind her parents was incredible.
Although she had not yet been able to learn to read well, Suborna took great pride in sitting with her book and pointing out the words and pictures she could now identify – a feat that would have been impossible just a few days before.