“I come from a very humble background; my dad was a teacher and my mum was a housewife (I call her a ‘house manager’). My dad wanted to hear nothing from his children but distinctions, but I wasn’t always distinction material.
“I initially wanted to be a scientist, then I ended up enrolling for a science degree at the University of Malawi. It was there my interest in medicine developed.”
“After two years I applied to St Andrews University in Scotland under a British Council sponsorship – at that time the government had a partnership with the Council to help train Malawian doctors. I was chosen, and after three years I moved to St Mary’s Hospital for clinical work.
“By the end of the training I was back in Malawi, and it was during this time that my interest in ophthalmology was strengthened. I met Professor Moses Chirambo, who was the only eye surgeon in Malawi at that time. He was one of the most dedicated surgeons – I couldn’t believe how one person could change so many lives. That was it: I never looked back.”
“I set up the eye unit at Queens [Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital] and at the moment I’m the only paediatric surgeon in Malawi. I was involved in a survey in the schools for blind children and we found that 85 per cent of these children should never have been blind at all, because they should have been operated on. That changed my life overnight and I really became an advocate for kids.
“I chose to specialise in paediatrics and luckily, the Ministry of Health and Sightsavers were keen to support this. In the past five years we’ve moved from operating on almost no children to operating on more than 400 children every year. This has become a passion.”
“At the moment in Malawi there are only eight surgeons [for a population of more than 14 million people]. Another issue is that in a poorly resourced country, people don’t seek help. They are stuck somewhere and the doctor is somewhere else, until you link the two: that is when you start to make an impact.
“Most patients in Malawi don’t go looking for help, so somebody has to look for them in their own villages. Once you find them you can’t ship them all to one centre, as it would be impossible. It’s easiest to move the team as close as possible to where they are. So you find the patient and move them to their local hospital. Then you find the medical team and move them to the same local hospital – not just the team, but all the [medical] necessities, which is a huge logistical problem.
“All of these logistical movements are funded by Sightsavers, including finding most of the essential medical equipment.”
“There are no tarmacked roads in the region: if you need to visit a patient, they are mostly off the road. This is easier in the dry season: in the rainy season, even in a 4×4 you can get stuck. Once my team crossed the river, then while they were working it started raining, the river filled up and they got stuck. The locals had to pull them out. It’s not the everyday fancy commute to work.
“I don’t live in a fool’s paradise. I know the limit of what a single individual can achieve, and in the last chapter of my life my attention is turning to motivating as many doctors as possible. I’m trying to work with like-minded friends to come up with ways of making them stick around once they specialise. Once that is achieved, my chapter is closed.”
Dr Moira Chinthambi received a Sightsavers scholarship to train as an ophthalmologist and now works on our inclusive eye health programme in Malawi.
Alinafe Zaina is studying clinical ophthalmology in Malawi with the help of a scholarship provided by Sightsavers’ inclusive eye health programme.
We’re working with partners in Cameroon and Senegal to ensure people with disabilities are able to take part in every stage of the political process.