Sightsavers Reports

A day in the life: “It’s a blessing to have the power to change someone’s life”

Illustration of student ophthalmologist Dr Hawa Megembe, sitting in a chair with flowers and a framed picture behind her.

I’m Dr Hawa Naiga Magembe. I’m a mum and an ophthalmology student. I’ve worked in Uganda all my life and I’ve been studying ophthalmology for my master’s for two years now – I’ve got one year left.

I’m on a scholarship funded by Sightsavers inclusive eye health programme in Uganda. It’s helped me very much and has lifted a massive weight off my shoulders. School fees are around £800, which doesn’t sound like much, but me and many of my colleagues have a family to support. So the scholarship means that I don’t need a job on the side to cover the costs and I can focus on my work and studies.

My daily routine

On an average day, I wake up around 6.45am. If I have class, then this runs from 8-10am. If we don’t have class, then I’m off to the hospital. Usually, I take a boda bike [a motorbike taxi] which takes 15-20 minutes. As soon as I get to the hospital, I go to where I’m allocated. Usually a clinic, the ward or the theatre. I spend most of the day here and finish at 6pm at the latest.

In our clinic work, we get new patients or patients who are referred from other units for consultation. We do a full ophthalmic examination of these patients, take down their full medical history and provide diagnosis and treatment. As I’m still training, we discuss with the consultants if we’re not comfortable treating any patients. They then give us further guidance. The other part of clinic work is refraction and investigation, and we take part in investigations. We also have a procedure room in the clinic where we do minor procedures like incisions, biopsies, corneal tear repairs and intravitreal injections.

On a typical ward day, I come in, see the patients, look through their files and do any follow-up that’s required. I discharge them if necessary and also review the patients who had surgery the day before.

We’ve had some very special patients. Recently, a man called Mohammed came in. He was 76 years old and had a cataract in one eye. After his operation, he was overwhelmed and couldn’t believe he could see – he called us magicians! When you see someone happy like this, it just makes you feel happy because you’ve changed someone’s life. It’s a blessing to have that power.

Our main theatre runs from Monday to Friday. Monday is for cataracts and lens rotation surgeries, lens repairs and corneal tear repairs. Tuesday is usually a paediatric ophthalmology day, so mainly children, but we also have some adults come in for cataract surgery. Wednesday is cataracts and glaucoma strabismus operations. Thursday is oculoplastic orbital day [treating the structures surrounding the eye] and Friday is just for emergencies.

Sometimes, we have lectures scheduled after being at the hospital all day; these are held until 8pm. If I don’t have a lecture, I just go home. I’ll have something to eat because I usually don’t eat throughout the day. After this, I spend some time with my family, until my daughter goes to sleep.

I try to keep weekends as free as possible so I can just relax and sleep in until 9am. I love cooking too because I love learning different things. Normally, I only have time to make a quick stew or soup but if I do have time, I’ll make a dessert – apple crumble is my favourite!

“We’ve had some very special patients. One man couldn’t believe he could see – he called us magicians!”

“When I help people,
I feel good, and that feeling is addictive.”

Why I love working in eye health

I was recommended for a scholarship by one of my lecturers and then Sightsavers got in touch. The scholarship covers my school fees and includes a living allowance that pays for my equipment, research coverage, a laptop, relevant books and transport. Before I specialised in ophthalmology I was working as a general doctor, mostly in private clinics.

I juggle working full-time at the hospital, ophthalmology training and being a mum to my daughter. I had to master balancing my time, but it is possible and the scholarship is a real help.

Studying eye health is just amazing. It’s a bit selfish on my part because when I help people, I feel good, and this feeling is addictive. Sometimes it’s even hard to leave the hospital because I want to stay and help more people – it just gives you happiness. Maybe eventually there will be no one who’s blind because of preventable conditions? If you see someone who is about to lose their job because they can’t see, and you help them, then they’re now going to be able to work to provide for their family.

I enjoy doing surgery the most. Currently, I can start and finish a cataract operation by myself, which is a good achievement. There is a big backlog for cataract treatment in Uganda and it’s the major cause of blindness here, so it’s important that I have this skill at my fingertips.

I actually remember the first cataract patient I worked on. His name was Jerry. He was a teacher but also volunteered in refugee camps. He had bilateral cataracts and I operated on his first eye, then a month later, I did his second eye. He still calls me up and asks how I’m doing and encourages me with my studies.

I’m really proud of myself for being able to support my family, being employed and doing this hard but important work. I’m happy that I have my master’s course and I hope to get more degrees. I only have one at the moment, soon to be two, but I hope to get more! Although the thing I’m most proud of is being a mum to my daughter. She’s stubborn, but she’s amazing.

The inclusive eye health programme

I received my scholarship through an inclusive eye health programme called ‘Improved access to affordable, quality eye care services for people with and without disabilities in south-west region, Malawi and Karamoja, Uganda’. It’s a three-year programme to improve the sustainability and equity of access to affordable and quality eye care services for people living in Uganda and Malawi.

The programme is funded by the UK government through UK Aid Match, and one of its goals is to strengthen the country’s health systems. For example, in Uganda, there aren’t enough ophthalmologists. The country’s population is about 45 million people and there are 45 ophthalmologists but around half are close to retirement age. Once they retire, every ophthalmologist left will be responsible for two million people, which is utterly impossible, even if you work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, all year round. So, there’s a lot to do, but I’m happy to be part of it and this programme gives me the courage that things can be better.

“There’s a lot to do, but this programme gives me courage that things can be better.”

Sightsavers has been working in Uganda since 1954

Our work in Uganda

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