Two River Eye Docs Volunteer In Africa
By Art Petrosemolo
A dedicated group of local ophthalmologists will leave for 14 days in Senegal, West Africa January 20th to treat cataracts and eye diseases. It’s their 11th humanitarian mission since 2007.
Similar to the well known Doctors Without Borders, the Right to Sight and Health group led by Drs. Donald MacDonald and Judith Simon of Monmouth Eye Care, Tinton Falls, go to areas where the need is greatest. They lead a small, highly trained group of volunteers who will work up to 12 hour days treating hundreds of men, women and children for eye diseases. Many times it is the first time patients have seen an eye doctor.
The first missions were to Mexico and Central America, however, for the last several years the group has worked twice a year in countries throughout Africa.
Although treating patients is key to the mission, the group also provides medical and eye-care education to local doctors and health care personnel through lectures, joint clinics and one-on-one teaching.
The group formed their non-profit two years ago and began accepting donations from interested friends. Volunteers pay their own expenses and donations by friends and medical organizations allow the Right to Sight and Health group also to donate medications, eye-drops, diagnostic instruments, ophthalmic equipment, surgical supplies, educational materials and glasses to patients and their hosts on each trip.
It began with Dr. Simon, a Hungary native who trained at Hahhnemann University in Philadelphia. She spent time in Mexico in 2002 on a volunteer medical mission as she finished her eye training. Additional medical trips included more visits to Mexico and stops in Nicaragua, the Phillipines, Ghana and Senegal. Dr. Simon got her colleague, Dr. MacDonald, medical director of Monmouth Eye Care, interested in medical missions when she joined the practice. With colleague Dr. Tracey Lewis the group started, in 2007 their own medical outreach program. They go overseas twice yearly. In recent years, working with church groups and the Peace Corps, RTSAH has centered its mission in Africa.
“Because we only have two weeks on each trip,” Dr. MacDonald says, “to do the most good, we need in-country support so we can start with patients from our first day.” The Presbyterian Church, according to the doctors is very active in Ghana and provide on-going support to RTSAH trips. The group feels Africa is where the need is highest now. “There are not enough doctors in Africa,” Dr. MacDonald says, “and most medical services are centered in the cities. The real need,” he stresses, “and where we go is to outlying, rural areas.”
In Africa, RTSAH doctors say, millions need surgery and may wait many years to get it, if they ever do. In the United States, almost no one loses their sight because of cataracts but in Africa that is not the case. Cataracts can be caused by many things including a virus, trauma or diet, but it is mainly caused by aging. In Africal, RTSAH doctors are teaching medical hosts small stitch incisions for this surgery which is new to the continent. “African doctors can’t get this type of training,” Dr. MacDonald says, “and, if they could, it would costs them thousands of dollars. “Working with us,” he continues, “they proceed from observation to performing this type of surgery within two weeks.”
For the January 2011 trip to Tambacounda, Senegal, the Peace Corps is handling the arrangements and because of their in-country organization, Dr. MacDonald is optimistic they will be able to see more patients than ever.
The group carries its equipment, including a large ophthalmic microscope, used in cataract surgery, on every trip. Although only 20 percent of the work on these missions involves cataract surgery, it, according to Dr. MacDonald, is the most life changing. “There is very little cataract surgery being done across Africa,” he says, “and when it is done, the equipment or techniques are not sophisticated enough to accurately match new lenses to the patient, and the results are frequently poor. With our sophisticated equipment, we can perform better quality surgery.” Dr. MacDonald says. “It is life changing for them. No longer are they a burden on their family but can return to work and an active life.”
Dr. MacDonald shudders when he describes some of the primitive cataract procedures local tribal healers still perform on patients. These treatments, he says, can do more harm than help. “On this trip, we are planning, for the first time, to use side by side tables, so members of our team and their medical hosts can prep patients as we operate allowing us to move from table to table, hopefully, completing 20-25 cataract surgeries a day besides our other treatment of eye problems.”
“We go where there is the most need,” Dr. Simon emphasizes, “and we are constantly evaluating where to take the next trip. Naturally, hospital and medical groups where we already have visited want us back and we might return but we are always looking for new places to bring our medical skills.”
The traveling group usually includes Drs. MacDonald and Dr. Simon and usually another medical doctor. Surgical nurses and health care workers also volunteer for particular missions so the traveling party can be about eight. Dr. Simon and Dr. MacDonald’s mentors from medical schools also send them student volunteers. “Many times we have more people who want to make a mission with us than we can accept,” they say. The group will return to Africa in late spring for a May-June first time eye mission to Tonga in Cameroon, West Africa and plans for January 2012 are being discussed.
Long term the group would like to build a facility in Africa where RTSAH and local doctors can provide specialized health care to treat eye diseases and perform eye surgery. RTSAH has applied for grants to take the next step but in the meantime, plans for twice yearly, hands-on visits to Africa continue.
In summarizing his overall philosophy and the philosophy of the group, Dr. MacDonald believes that doing community service should be encouraged. “If we all took just a little bit of time every year to help others in need, the world would be a much better place. Instead of that vacation to some exotic place, a week or two dedicated to improving life of our fellow human beings will do much to improve the world.”
For more information about the Right to Sight group, check their website: https://www.righttosightandhealth.org