I met Victoria Nalwanga for the first time this morning, though she is no stranger to ORBIS. You see, Victoria, 14 years old at the time, was one of the first people to receive a cornea transplant in Uganda during our Flying Eye Hospital program in 2006.
Two years and world of change later, Victoria stepped back onboard our DC-10 aircraft – not as a patient, but as the face of inspiration…the face of what is possible. I met her along with her mother and father, Damulira and Josephine, at the Mulago hospital in the morning and we set out for the hour-long ride into Entebbe, where the Flying Eye Hospital has been conducting its program all week. The three of them, filled with excitement and anticipation, had been looking forward to this opportunity for awhile, wondering if they would ever have the chance. We talked the entire ride. Victoria told me of everything she was doing again now that her sight had been restored – developing her artistic talents (Victoria loves to draw), designing clothes, spending time with friends and rethinking a future that was once held a prisoner of blindness. Her mother and father beamed of happiness and each held a prideful expression on their faces listening to their daughter speak of future plans, dreams and ambitions.
Seeing the plane again as we approached the entrance to the airport stopped Victoria in mid-sentence and a big smile consumed her face – the kind of smile that stretches into tiny tears of joy and great happiness.
Walking up the stairway to the plane, Victoria and her family were met by Gavin. She remembered him from her visit in 2006 as he had spent a lot of time documenting her case and the experience her family triumphed through. As they reunited and entered the plane, Gavin asked me how she was doing. As I shared all of Victoria’s news from the ride in, I couldn’t help but notice how touched he was to see her and her family again, and to hear how well they were all doing…this was the first of several small, yet priceless moments I would encounter because of Victoria.
For the next several hours, she talked with the patients awaiting their cornea transplant surgeries and examinations. Two were post-ops from Tuesday’s surgical schedule and two were pre-ops waiting their turn. Sitting in the laser room among the patients and their families, she eased their nervousness and answered questions that the patients were curious about, but otherwise felt embarrassed to ask. She really loosened their tensions and provided invaluable advice to them from how she cared for her new cornea in the months after her surgery to how her life has changed since the operation. She was absolutely radiant and her presence aboard the plane was the perfect remedy to a nervous/somewhat timid group of people about to go through what she had encountered and emerged from two years ago.
Victoria was even examined by our volunteer faculty cornea specialist, Dr. Rishi Mohan, who used her case and her success story to present to the 40+ local doctors in the Flying Eye Hospital classroom. From the laser room, we were able to broadcast the examination, using the camera from the slit-lamp into the classroom. Upon hearing the results of her examination by Dr. Mohan, Hunter sent an email to Dr. Troy Elander, the volunteer faculty doctor who performed Victoria’s surgery two years ago. He wrote:
"Dear Dr. Elander - I am back in Uganda and we tracked down one of your patients from the 2006 program (a 14 year old woman with keratoconus named Victoria) and examined her again on the plane today- she was 6/9 uncorrected and the graft was crystal clear.; I just wanted to give you this great update and thank you again for being an ORBIS VF."
Near the end of the day, Gavin and I sat down with Victoria and her parents to film an interview. As they spoke of their experience, sharing each step of the journey and talking about how this single event forever changed all of their lives, I couldn’t help but notice how captivated two of our staff ophthalmologist had become in hearing Victoria and her parents tell their story. They sat there hanging on every word…every emotion shared and in the end found themselves face-to-face with what we all work very hard to achieve – giving back the gift of sight.
It’s not every day we are able to see patients from previous programs in such a capacity and with an interactive role aboard the plane’s daily activities. I feel confident in saying that she inspired us just as much as she says we inspired her.