In October 2016, Dr. Murphy and Dr. Osiowy, along with a team of a dozen other optometrists and eye care volunteers, participated in an eye care project in Malawi, Africa. We traveled 18 flight hours followed by a five-hour bus ride through the countryside. Malawi is listed as within the top five poorest country in the world, and seeing is truly believing. As our bus traveled past village after village, we saw dusty red-brown landscape, as it was the dry season, with occasional punches of color from the purple-flowered African Jacaranda tree, and the vast canopy of the intermittent Baobab trees that could hold as much water as possible from the parched land. We passed through the village markets and marveled at the colorful groups of people gathered around the central water well, collecting their daily water for drinking, cooking and cleaning. Buckets of water, food and bundles of charred wood for their fires, were carried on their heads, or across their bicycles. Their homes were made of sun-dried clay brick walls, and thatched grass roofs. Their clothes were hand scrubbed in pots, and sun-dried. Often, they wouldn’t even have shoes. One of the most intriguing sight to me was the women carrying their babies across their backs in a simple cloth wrap.
After that eye opening excursion, we arrived at our motel in the city of Mizuzu, to get settled in for our next week of eye care at the Optometry school and to outreach clinics in surrounding villages.
Some information about the Optometry school… The Optometry clinic is located at the Mzuzu University, in Malawi. Along with Optometry Giving sight, Canadian Vision Care established an Optometry clinic in 2009 which complimented the Optometry training program that already existed at the University. But before that, students could only practice in classroom. Now they could actually gain practical experience with patients in an actual exam rooms. From the first year with a clinic there were only five graduates, and only seven years later has grown to a graduation class of thirty!Graduate students are making a growing impact of servicing the needs of 14 million people, which will significantly improve eye care access compared to before having only four Ophthalmologists serving the whole country. Our mission in Malawi is to train the local Optometry students to better care for their population within the resources that are available in their country.
Onto our project… Dr. Murphy started his first day to work with third and fourth year students at the Optometry clinic. Although the clinics were originally set up from CVC charity resources,upkeep is difficult to maintain the more technical equipment. Often they had to create some less than North American standard repair, or use poor quality replacement parts, just to keep them somewhat useable. They have to work with limited electricity, having random electrical brown, and the same for running water. As a result, clinic instructions quickly get altered to a more hands on modified version from what we are used to in our clinics back home!
Dr. Osiowy started her first day working with another set of Optometry students at an outreach program. We drove two and a half hours on an incredibly bumpy road, arriving at a village medical centre. We had to make up a clinic inside their medical clinic, on cement benches, no water or electricity. The second year students taped plastic eye charts to the walls outside the building, in the bright, hot sun, to start
taking visual acuities- seeing what size of letters they can read- to determine if they need to be measured for glasses. Inside, another group of third and fourth year students start testing for glasses, and a final group doing eye health testing. We managed to get through the line up of people when the last battery of our hand held equipment flickered out, no more testing possible for the day. At the same time, another part of our team was delivering prescription glasses for any people that matched our supply of glasses that we brought from Canada. Other prescriptions were written up to be made at the Optometry clinic, where they had a lens production lab to make more complex prescriptions.At the end of the day, we headed to our bus to have our sandwiches we had made in the morning, but unfortunately we had left them in the heat of our vehicle all day, so we didn’t think they’d be safe to eat. Well, it was a long hungry drive back to our home base. But of course, we have food and refreshment waiting at the other end!
The rest of the week was spent alternating the students between the in-clinic training and outreach programs, working with the students to help make practical and useful decisions. We saw patients with a vast array of eye conditions, many for their first time receiving eye care. The students were able to see a number of interesting cases that they otherwise would only study in books, and were able to see some happy faces when they were able to see with their new glasses. It was a rewarding week to see how much we could help the graduating classes expand their experience and knowledge, and we look forward to ensuring that CVC eye doctors like us will continue with the Malawi Optometry clinic teaching program for many years to come.
After our clinic week, we traveled to Mangochi in the southern part of Malawi, and visited Sarah’s Children, a day-orphanage and school near the city of Blantyre. We did a vision screening of the approximate 150 children, and toured their simple facility. We learned that as a result of their building being at low ground level, theycan end up being underwater by over a foot when the rain season comes. We learned that often the children only have access to one meal a day- sima – a corn based porridge-like meal, and some vegetables. It’s only twice a year that they get meat.The school has very limited funds to provide that basic meal for the children. These are orphaned children, mostly from parents dying of Aids, and over 40% being HIV positive themselves. We concluded our visit with our contribution of suite cases full of clothes that our team had brought from home, and were thanked by the children singing us a song.
The project left an indelible mark on our minds, wondering how we could help more. It didn’t take long, and our colleague started the process by investing in a plot of land to relocate the school to higher ground. Dr. Murphy and I will also contribute to the construction of the new orphanage that has been underway since early December. Dr. Murphy will return to Malawi to see the construction underway in January 2017, and looks forward to seeing a lot of progress, and looks forward to some hands on brick laying! Fortunately from the team visits in past years, they have met university- based engineers that are coordinating the construction with local trades. New jobs, safer home, new hope. It’s at least one step in the right direction.
See www.canadianvisioncare.com for donation information