The current political and economic crisis in Zimbabwe has severely affected hospitals and other public service providers.. Essential drugs such as painkillers are in short supply and many medical personnel have left the country in search of money, status and safety. Despite the demand for Zimbabwean doctors and nurses overseas, some have remained home to assist their fellow countryman. From Harare, reporter Derek Moyo takes a look at one medical professional who’s bringing relief to thousands who never thought they’d see another day.
The 22-year-old woman had not seen her mother in years, and had never seen her own baby. Her life changed the moment Dr. Solomon Guramatunhu traveled to her village in Ndola, Zambia, and removed her cataracts.
He recounts the experience..
"You can imagine,he said, "this is somebody who is now totally blind, has given birth and [she] had not seen their child and had not seen her mother for 3 years. When we operated on her, she opened her eyes. She could see her child for the very first time and could see her mother again. I can never forget her face. She just could not believe it and then she smiled and she started crying and everybody around started crying."
The young woman is just one of thousands who’ve had their futures brought back into focus by Dr. Guramatunhu and fellow colleagues of the Eyes for Africa program.
Cataracts occur when any part of the primary focusing mechanism, the crystalline lens behind the iris, becomes cloudy, opaque or yellow. This result is the failure of the lens to let in light, and vision is reduced or eliminated.
For paying clients, the 30-minute operation would cost about 55 million Zimbabwe dollars For the continent’s poor, the service is free.
EYE SIGHT, AIDS, AND THE ELDERLY
Dr Guramatunhu estimates that one percent of all Zimbabweans is blind – and an overwhelming majority of the cases are due to cataracts.
Many of those affected are elderly people with children who have died of AIDS. As surviving grandparents, they are expected to look after the children. But because of their own blindness, it’s sometimes the other way around.
"In the rural areas today," he said, "we talk of a double tragedy because we have elderly people, grandmothers, grandfathers who have lost off spring due to hiv/aids, so they become the custodians of the orphans. The grandparents then go blind because of cataracts, which means they can not look after those orphans. [So] you end up with these little children looking after their grandparents, and most of them then opt out of school to be able to look after [them]."
ECONOMICS AND SURGERY
So far, over 10, 000 people, including the elderly, have been helped.
They include between 100 and 120 people over the three-day periods Dr Guramatunhu allots for travel to rural areas.
He says logistical problems prevent the doctors from reaching more people.
" A lot of these people cannot afford the bus fare to come to the hospital." he said. "….The ordinary person, if you have a grandmother or grandfather has cataracts or is blind, we do expect you to do your bit maybe provide them transport to come to the clinic."
A LIFE OF PRIVILEDGE
Most of those helped are the disadvantaged.
In contrast, the well-known ophthalmologist has led a life of relative privilege, with a costly education in Scotland cushioned by scholarships.
He said, "If you speak to a lot of people who today are privileged, somewhere along the line they would have obtained assistance from somebody else. So I think, privilege comes with responsibility. One can help in various ways and I think everybody is in a position to help somebody else regardless of their status."
Today, Dr Guramatunhu is an honorary lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe and has his own private eye surgery in Harare.
During a stint in government, he helped convince medical aid societies to purchase eye equipment so that local people no longer had to travel to South Africa for cataract surgery and laser treatment.
EYE ON THE FUTURE
Dr. Guramatunhu’s own future means expanding the number of operations, and the number of countries, Eyes for Africa can cover.
The group conducts up to 5,000 operations per year, but the Zimbabwean ophthalmologist would like to see that number doubled, or even tripled.
For this, the soft-spoken doctor has a new hat – as aggressive fund-raiser.
His group has been raising money in various countries to ensure that more people have their sight restored. Dr Guramatunhu said this year several golf tournaments have raised millions of Zimbabwean dollars. Rotary clubs in Zimbabwe and South Africa have offered generous support to the program.