In Kenya, more than 650,000 people are blind or visually impaired due to cataract. Many of these are children who are living in poverty, for whom the problem is especially dire.
Childhood cataract must be treated urgently because it can lead to irreversible blindness – even if help becomes available later in life. Brain development is usually complete around 10 years of age. During this developmental phase, the brain learns to process visual stimuli. If a child has poor vision throughout their childhood, their brain might never learn how to process stimuli – so even if a child gets help later in life, their sight may never be completely restored.
For Timothy, the deadline was approaching: at nine years old, his time was running out.
It was difficult to watch the way nine year old Timothy navigated the school day. During lessons, he’d stand at his teacher’s feet, inches from the blackboard. It was the only way he could make out what his teacher was writing. Back at his desk, he was lost, and could only keep up by copying work from those next to him.
Shy, withdrawn and anxious, Timothy was on a path to complete blindness.
Luckily, Timothy was diagnosed by Rono Rhoda, who was trained in ophthalmic nursing by The Fred Hollows Foundation. He was then referred to Dr Ollando, a paediatric eye surgeon also trained by The Foundation.
Before he decided on eye health, Dr. Ollando had a myriad of specialities to choose from, such as obstetrics, gynaecology, and surgery. But he chose opthalmology because he could see how great the need was. “Every time an eye patient came,” Dr. Ollando explained, “Nobody knew what to expect because at that point in time, we didn’t have a specialist. When it came to an eye patient, we were stuck.”
Over the years, Kenya has worked to improve the health of its people. But eye health services still need work. One of the main issues is the lack of awareness about cataract blindness – particularly in poorer or remote communities.
This is part of the reason by Timothy’s parents, Symon and Miriam, didn’t understand Timothy’s condition and didn’t know there was a solution for it. Another fact is the shortage of healthcare workers specialising in eye health. Training people like Rono Rhoda and Dr Ollando will go a long way to addressing the lack of adequate eye care for so many Kenyans like Timothy.
The years leading up to Timothy’s surgery were long and painful. But the removal of his cataracts happened in 20 minutes. During the surgery, his father Symon anxiously waited outside the operating theatre. Symon knew how valuable this surgery was, but he was confused. Why would an Australian organisation – and Australian people – go to all this trouble to help his son?
When the moment came for Timothy to remove his eye patch, he showed polite Kenyan restraint, unsure of displaying too much emotion in front of elders.
It didn’t last long. Symon couldn’t hide his joy and Timothy couldn’t hide his elation. And that high five between them is the reason we – and our incredible donors – do what we do.
Without better funding and access to eye care services, the number of people who are blind worldwide will triple from 36 million to 115 million by 2050. As Dr. Ollando observes, “By not intervening, it means a whole lot of inconveniences in life: it means a much poorer socio-economic status, it means low self-esteem, it means many wrong things that should be corrected as soon as possible.”