We had travelled to the country to see first-hand how Sightsavers supporters are helping to transform the lives of children suffering from cataracts.
After meeting local staff from the Sightsavers team, we started the six-hour drive to the Eastern Province and the district of Petauke. We had a packed schedule of families to visit during our time in Zambia, but meeting nine-year-old Lovemore and following his journey through surgery is something I’ll never forget.
Lovemore lives in a township on the outskirts of Petauke. Unlike some of the well-kept villages we’d visited previously, the township was run down, and lacked basic sanitation and water facilities.
There was an amazing enthusiasm and warmth from the people we met, and a huge crowd of very excitable children gathered to watch as we spoke with Lovemore’s family.
Lovemore sat still and silently beside the local ophthalmologist, Postan. He was constantly squinting and covering his eyes from the sunlight, and didn’t engage with anyone. It struck me what a stark contrast this was to the energy, excitement and enthusiasm of the other children in his neighbourhood, and that of my own daughter, who is the same age as Lovemore.
We learned from his aunt, Mary, that Lovemore had been suffering with cataracts in both eyes since he was very small. His parents and siblings live a couple of hours away over the border in Mozambique, where his father is originally from.
Lovemore’s grandmother, Iredy, heard on the radio in Zambia that Sightsavers was helping to provide eye operations. The family agreed that it would be best for Lovemore to move back to Zambia to live with his grandma, so he could receive the treatment he so desperately needed.
We asked Iredy how life was for Lovemore: she told us he could do very little for himself. If he was familiar with an area, such as his home, he could move around alone, but he couldn’t go further afield. He could only play with friends if they came to his house, and she worried about him if he ventured outside their gate.
Iredy also explained that life was tough for her in the township. She lived alone and looked after Lovemore full time, which meant she could no longer work to provide for her wider family.
Lovemore’s aunt, Mary, explained to us that he hadn’t been to school for “a long time” because he couldn’t see what was written on the blackboard. The school advised his family to bring Lovemore back once he could see.
The day after we met him, Lovemore had his eyes checked and was scheduled to have surgery, supported by Sightsavers. Unfortunately, there are only two trained surgeons in Zambia able to carry out child cataract operations, and they work in hospitals in Lusaka, a six-hour drive away.
The Sightsavers team in Zambia arranged the appointment, transportation and accommodation for Lovemore and Iredy so he could have his operation in Lusaka. Without this support, it would not have been feasible.
When I asked Iredy about her expectations for the surgery, she told me: “I hope that he will be healed and that his eyes will be back to normal. That’s all I hope.” If the surgery was successful, she said she would be overjoyed. “I will take him to school so that he gets educated,” she explained, saying she dreams of Lovemore becoming a manager at a company.
Iredy and Lovemore had a small suitcase for their journey, and we learned it was the first time that either of them had travelled to Zambia’s capital city.
Before they set off, we joined Lovemore at the local clinic. Despite a long wait to have pre-operation checks, he sat very still on the bench next to his grandma, holding one eye and squinting with the other in the bright sunlight.
I reflected on how my nine-year-old child would be causing mischief in this situation, running around, eager to be involved in something other than just sitting. I felt really sad to see Lovemore so shy and sedentary, clinging to his grandmother’s side.
On the morning of the surgery, Lovemore bravely walked into the operating theatre and climbed onto the hospital bed. The anaesthetist and nurse gently told him to breathe in the gas and he was calmly sedated.
The surgeon quickly got to work on Lovemore’s left eye, then, once he was finished, he started on the right eye. I was surprised how straightforward the operation was and how quickly it was over. Both of Lovemore’s eyes were operated on in less than 45 minutes.
The surgeon explained to us that because of Lovemore’s age, he had been able to follow a procedure that meant Lovemore should have almost full vision the next day, when the bandages were removed.
It was hard to see Lovemore sedated on the hospital trolley with Iredy waiting anxiously nearby, but we knew that something amazing had happened for them that day.
The next day, we arrived at the hospital to learn that Lovemore had already had his bandages removed very early that morning. Very soon afterwards, I saw a child running past me at top speed and my colleague pointed out that it was Lovemore. I couldn’t believe it and had to run after him to check!
The surgeon confirmed that Lovemore’s eyesight had dramatically improved in both eyes, and that the impact was effective immediately. What we witnessed next will stay with me forever: the joy of Lovemore’s transformation is something that I needed to share with you.
Lovemore was totally unrecognisable in terms of his presence and personality. Each time we’d met him previously he had been shy, sedentary, uncommunicative and unsteady on his feet. That morning at the hospital we saw him running around the ward, laughing, singing, talking and dancing.
During his post-surgery check-up, he was delighted to notice a spider crawling up the wall (we weren’t quite so keen!). And when he realised he was able to see the details of the hospital notes his grandmother was carrying, the look on his face was priceless.
There was a playground outside the hospital, and Lovemore started running around playing football with my colleague. He climbed up and slid down a slide for what looked like the first time ever: he was hesitant at first, but quickly went back for a second and third time.
Heartwarmingly, he started acting like a big brother to a six-year-old patient, Florence, pushing her on the roundabout, climbing with her through a tunnel and showing her colours on the ground.
It is difficult to describe the breadth of Lovemore’s transformation, other than to say that he looked like he had been given his childhood overnight.
But it was even more than this: with a straightforward operation, Lovemore had been given a future. He will be able to live an independent life, gain an education and provide for himself instead of being reliant on those around him.
Witnessing the transformation, it felt like a miracle. But it’s supporters like you that help make life-changing surgery like this possible. This is such a joyful story and one that I feel privileged to share with you.
Unfortunately there is still so much work to be done. In countries across Africa, 82,000 children are living with cataracts and waiting for the opportunity that supporters like you helped give Lovemore.
Please can you give a gift today to help those that are living such a limited childhood because of cataracts?
Your donation will save sight – and change lives.