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Eyeing a vacation in Africa
By ANDY HAMILTON / Niles Daily Star

NILES - There are close to 100 optometrists to serve the nearly one million people in the Michiana area. Kigoma, Tanzania is a region of over one million people with few, if any, doctors able to provide basic eye care.

 
 

The members of Vision Outreach International know this and in a few weeks will make the trek to eastern Africa to help.

Dr. Michael Seward of Great Lakes Eye Care will be in Kigoma for two weeks representing VOI, a non-denominational organization serving the poor blind in remote areas of the globe. Dr. David Brown, also of Great Lakes Eye Care, formed VOI, which takes about six missions a year to rural areas that completely lack any form of eye care.

"We are able to go typically where there is not equipment to do eye surgery," Seward said while seated in one of the exam rooms at Great Lakes' Eye Care in Niles, surrounded by the latest, high-tech tools in the business.

Seward said all the equipment necessary for performing the cataract surgeries in Tanzania will be brought from Michigan. The tools used in the surgeries cannot be found in Kigoma but are a fixture in any U.S. hospital, Seward said.

Seward said he will almost exclusively be performing cataract surgery while in Kigoma. Working alongside him will be a team of six to eight people, including his wife, Jannike, who Seward said he met in 1992 while aboard the mission ship Anastasis in West Africa. The assistants will translate, check each patient's vision, do clerical work and keep the supplies up and the instruments sterile.

Because of the amount of equipment that must be taken, Seward said each member of the VOI team is limited to one personal carry-on bag of luggage for the entire two week stay.

Paying to get the team and supplies to Africa is partially covered by VOI, Seward said. The program is able to pay for the plane tickets and visas. The remaining cost is divided evenly among the team, who donates the remaining money, Seward said.

The eight VOI volunteers who went on a mission to Sierra Leone in March 2005 each donated $2,000 for the trip.

The VOI team lives in the home of a missionary for the duration of the trip, said Seward, who is from Benton Harbor.

Since the region lacks so much in eye care information, many people in Kigoma do not know why they are experiencing loss of vision, he said.

Plus, the majority cannot afford to travel in order to have a chance at being examined by a doctor and, furthermore, do not know if what they are diagnosed with can even be treated, Seward said.

"It's not taken for granted there that you'll be able to have health care," Seward said.

Because many people in Kigoma do not know if their eye problems are treatable, Seward said the VOI group will have to determine for them.

Prior to arriving in Kigoma, VOI will have a message on local radio notifying people in the area with vision problems about the opportunity for help, Seward said. The initial announcement could draw several hundred people to the old hospital where Seward and his team will be set up, he said.

From there, Seward and his team will select about 100 individuals to perform cataract surgery on. Generally, Seward said they try to choose the people with the worst vision, but who have the best chance to regain their sight.

The result is a touching experience. A crazy week of non-stop work that Seward called "a privilege."

"Some of these people, you may be giving them their life back," he said.

In return, patients have been known to pay Seward and other doctors with animals, such as chickens or goats.

Seward said he witnessed an extremely touching event while in Sierra Leone. During that trip, the VOI team performed 88 surgeries in seven days, 75 of which were cataract surgeries.

One patient who visited the VOI site had to be led in by one of his grandchildren, Seward said. The young boy would hold a stick behind his back and walk in front of the older man, choosing the best path. Completing a successful surgery in this instance possibly created a whole new life for two people; sending the older man back to the work force and the child back to school, Seward said.

"There are very few places in medicine where you can have such a dramatic impact in such a short period of time," Seward said.

He added the World Health Organization has named cataract surgery as the second most cost-effective form of medical care behind immunization.

It is about a 30 minute process to conduct a cataract surgery, which removes a white, foggy mask in the eye clouding a person's vision, Seward said. Patients in the U.S. that undergo the surgery typically receive two to three follow-up appointments. Only those treated in the beginning of the week at a VOI station have a chance at being re-evaluated during the week, Seward said.

VOI teams have also witnessed a fair amount of poor people with glaucoma, but treating the disease has proven difficult because of the high cost of medication, Seward said.

"It is one big problem we are not able to address satisfactorily," Seward said.

Seeing the reactions of the people whose sight is improved is worth the whole trip, which Seward said is usually his annual vacation.

"It's just been an incredibly rewarding way to spend our vacation time," Seward said. "It is not a tourist destination and you work like a crazy man for a week. But, you have to see the patient's face the next morning when you take the bandage off. I get a little emotional just talking about it."

Spending an entire vacation working does not sound nearly as bad as it is, Seward said. The intensity of the trip actually does more to refresh his outlook and energy toward his job than the typical vacation, he added.

"You work really hard and the conditions are uncomfortable, but you come back more ready to work than if you spent a week in Cancun. You're just pumped and it's an amazingly fulfilling thing to do as a doctor," Seward said.

Mission Statement

Our Value: To emulate Christ's example of compassion, humility, and integrity in all relationships.

Our Mission: To preserve and restore eyesight, both in our community and around the world.

Our Operating Philosophy: To provide the highest quality of care to every patient, using the best available technology, research and continuing education for our doctors and staff, both now and in the future.

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