Blog by Sara Aghajanian
Sara Aghajanian is Communications Coordinator at ORBIS’s New York Office
We met Theresa Mulenga on screening day of ORBIS’s first Flying Eye Hospital program in Zambia. “I want to be a teacher,” said the 12-year old when I asked her what she wanted to do when she is older. Her birthday was coming up next month and like most children her age; she has bright hopes for her future.
Theresa was chosen as a teaching case for surgery on the ORBIS Flying Eye Hospital. The team would operate on her right eye and surgery on her left eye would be scheduled for a later date. The grey glow in her eyes was bilateral cataract, which meant that the lenses in both her eyes were clouded. The lens of the eye is normally clear and if it becomes clouded it becomes very difficult to see. Cataract is the leading cause of blindness worldwide and yet it can be easily resolved with a short, simple surgery.
Theresa’s mother first became aware of her daughter’s condition in June 2012. Theresa’s grandmother was helping her with her homework and noticed that she held her schoolbook very close to her face. Her mother took her to the local hospital and they referred her to the nearest eye center, Kitwe, a little more than an hour from their home by car. By the time we met her in Kitwe, Theresa had already missed two terms of school because she couldn’t see.
Theresa’s case is a common problem in this part of the world and is an example of how blindness can hinder a child’s development and quality of life. Her surgery was conducted by ORBIS volunteer ophthalmologist Dr. Daniel Neely and local ophthalmologist Dr. Chilishe Mboni, who is one of the only pediatric ophthalmologists in Zambia. The skills that Dr. Neely passed to Dr. Mboni will enhance Kitwe’s continued ability to provide quality care to children.
Theresa’s surgery was successfully completed and the next day she came to her post-op appointment with a pretty yellow dress and bright red shoes. During her exam, her personality completely opened as she smiled from ear to ear. Her mother beamed joyfully that her daughter could see. “I think Theresa looks absolutely amazing. She has gone from being blind in both eyes to all of a sudden coming out of her shell and being interactive and smiling and being extremely functional,” said Dr. Neely. “Now she can take care of herself, continue through school and be productive and have a happy life. “
At the end of her examination we gave Theresa red sunglasses that matched her shoes perfectly. We watched her look out the window and realize excitedly that she was on an airplane for the first time in her life. We gave her a tour of the plane and when we arrived at the cockpit, as she sat in the pilot’s chair, she asked, “Will I be able to fly one day?”
“You can grow up to do anything you want to do,” replied Gabriela Ruiz Gonzales, ORBIS Staff Ophthalmologist. “You can even become Captain Theresa.”
Back in the New York office I am still thinking about Theresa and the reminder she gave us. Her story prompts us to remember why sight is so critical and why ORBIS continues to work to save it, so that more children like her will be able to thrive and reach their full potential.
Photos by Geoff Oliver Bugbee