Right to Sight Eye Clinic, December 5th-16th
On December 5th, I packed my bags and joined a group of volunteers heading north to the dusty region Bakel. After a significant bus breakdown and a fight with a group of testy Senegalese who didn’t take kindly to our accidental “looks” in their direction, we arrived after dark, down a sweeping paved road strung high with street lights, into the glittering regional capital. I’m not sure if it was the fatigue of the long travel day or the impressive array of electricity before us, but one volunteer exclaimed “Woah – it’s like the Los Angeles of Senegal!”
Yes, if you know of anyone coming to Senegal, please pass on the word that Bakel is just like Los Angeles. That’s sure to piss of any tourist who makes the trek that far north. However, after having spent a week there, I’m pretty fond of the city and have only good things to say about it.
Even though Bakel is technically part of our Tambacounda demographic, few volunteers have been there. It’s not close, and it has a rough reputation for heat and desolation. Maybe it was these deplorable expectations that caused us all to be pleasantly surprised by the tree lined streets and the fully stocked boutiques. But we weren’t there to admire the views. It was time for the long awaited Eye Clinic!
One of the cooler projects I’ve been involved in, the Bake Eye Clinic involved two American ophthalmologists, both of whom traveled to Bakel to teach a Senegalese doctor how to perform cataract surgeries. Over the course of their two weeks in Senegal, the three doctors performed over a hundred cataract surgeries and diagnosed many eye conditions. Peace Corps volunteers descended on the clinic to help with language, logistics and provide extra hands.
I served as master of logistics, with another volunteer. We handled the crowds of people who swarmed the clinic, glimpsing the white doctors and demanding anything from an appointment to free x-rays on their heads. It became easy to sort out the truly afflicted and the freeloaders. The doctors had brought a hefty supply of cheap Club Med sunglasses, so our strategy for those just looking for a handout became “Hey - just Club Med that guy!” and tossing out a pair of free glasses. Nine times out of ten, satisfaction was achieved. A job well done!
At one point, I switched over to administering eye exams. Instead of rows of letters, our eye charts have pictures to accommodate the illiterate. One of the pictures is of a hand, and it gets smaller and smaller as you go down the chart. As I tested one old lady, she said “Yes, that’s an adult hand.” And then “that’s a child’s hand.” Finally, “that’s a baby’s hand.” Well played, Madame.
Between the jokes and successes, there was a fair amount of tragedy. Some patients waited all day for a consultation, only be told they had advanced glaucoma and there was no hope. Many of these cases refused to accept their situation and argued that we just “didn’t want to help” and “of course we could cure it” because we were white and American. One volunteer broke down and sobbed after one such confrontation. Other times, patients would lie and exclaim that they couldn’t see anything, not a single thing. Of course, if that were the case, the doctors most likely couldn’t operate or assist in any way. Once told this, the story quickly changed. “Yes – all of a sudden I can see the light!” Ok, buddy.
The 7am-9pm hours of the clinic were also extremely wearing on volunteers who haven’t adhered to such a schedule in months. After one day, I thought unnervingly “this is what it’s like to have a real job…”
At the end of the week, I was exhausted and fulfilled. The experience had all the positives and negatives of any project in Senegal, but I felt exhilarated by the quick results. Some people removed their post surgery bandages and walked away without further ado, which was a bit anticlimactic, but I also watched several patients give happy exclamations. (In actuality, it takes about a month to perceive the benefits of the operation, but we appreciated the theatrics.) A trip well worth it and one I hope to repeat this coming year. Thanks very much to the Right to Sight NGO and their incredible gift to Bakel!
Until next time,