"My eyesight is back! I can see you are wearing a blue shirt!" These were the words of a joyful Maun cataract patient soon after Dr Rashmin Ghandi completed an operation to remove cataracts from his eyes.
The man had for years been completely blind in both eyes. "All my cattle were stolen by people who took advantage of my blindness. Although I could not see those people, I know their voices and I will now be going around to collect my cattle," *Nlebesi Modisa said.
Modisa is one of nearly 1,200 patients from selected villages in Botswana that a group of four ophthalmologists and six paramedics from India's Sankara Nethralaya Chennai operated on to remove cataracts in a campaign dubbed 'Save an Eye 2011'. A cataract is a clouding that develops in the crystalline lens of the eye or in its envelope, varying in degree from slight to complete opacity and obstructing the passage of light. While it generally afflicts people in their 60s and above, a cataract can affect younger people as well.
"Many of the patients were seeing their grandchildren for the first time, and each operation was a truly touching experience for all of us," Dr Ghandi, who is the director of Sankara Nethralaya - a name that means Temple of the Eye - told a group of journalists, the Indian High Commissioner to Botswana, Madhva Chandra, and members of the India-Botswana Chamber of Commerce and Industry (IBCCI) last week.
The team would have carried out 1,500 operations free of charge, at the end of its mission.
Dr Ghandi's group came to Botswana last month at the invitation of the Indian High Commission.
The Ministry of Health approached the high commission in 2009 to help restore sight to over 8,000 cataract patients. In response the Indian High Commission requested Sankara Nethralaya, a non-profit making organisation in southern India, to undertake the project.
Led by Dr Ghandi, a team of 10 doctors designed a two-month plan during which they hoped to operate on 1,500 patients at four hospitals in Botswana, namely Mahalapye District Hospital, Letsholathebe Memorial Hospital in Maun, Scottish Livingstone in Molepolole and Sekgoma Memorial in Serowe. Then, the IBCCI stepped in and offered financial backup as part of its corporate social responsibility. The organisation promised to raise P1.2 million from donations by corporations, charitable organisation and individuals.
"Immediately after talks began between the High Commission and the Ministry, IBCCI decided to take initiative to get involved with this project. Despite being a young organisation, we are privileged to have a vibrant and enthusiastic membership, many of whom were eager to participate in this project," IBCCI president Jagdish Shah said.
Once in the country the team got to work, starting at Sekgoma Memorial Hospital where the team completed an all-successful staggering 215 surgeries in just seven days. The team broke that
Ministry of Health and National Prevention of Blindness coordinator Alice Lehasa said that a 2006 study conducted in Botswana had shown that 3.7 percent of the population, or 74,000 people using the latest census statistics, were blind. Cataract accounts for most of the blindness, she said. While cataract surgery is a simple procedure that takes between 10-15 minutes, Botswana was unable to deal with its more than 8,000 cases because it does not have people with the expertise. "Currently we have only one ophthalmologist who is based at Sekgoma Memorial Hospital.
We have had about four others whose contracts ended and they have had to return to their countries as they were working by special arrangements between their governments and Botswana," she said. Sadly, even the specialist at Sekgoma, who Dr Ghandi commend as a man of great experience and excellence, is an expatriate.
"The problem is that Batswana specialists often leave government employ to set up their own practices," she said.
Meanwhile, she said, the ministry will continue to conduct mini cataract operation campaigns at least thrice a year, with a major Campaign done on the World Sight Day, which fall in October.
"The Save an Eye Campaign is the major one [this year] and the first of its kind," she said, and expressed hope that the collaboration by the Indian High Commission, the IBCC, Sankara Nethralaya and the Botswana government would continue, not only in bringing doctors to Botswana, but also by training Batswana doctors as ophthalmologists.
For many of the blind cataract patients, the team of Indian doctors was so near yet so far for them. They heard their friends and families talk about how people got their sight back. They hoped, and their hope should not die as already the Indians are looking at the possibility of coming back to help.
"The IBCCI has begun planning for a second phase of the campaign where more surgeries will be conducted.
"The response has been overwhelming from the Indian community here and from the people of Botswana, and it has encouraged all those who are involved to continue their efforts for this campaign," IBCCI president Jagdish Shah said.
*Not real name