In late February 2020, Anna Fakadej, M.D., a cataract specialist at Carolina Eye Associates, was scheduled to travel to Ethiopia to perform pro-bono eye surgeries and treat patients in underdeveloped areas. Two days before her scheduled departure, the trip was canceled due to the growing COVID-19 pandemic. Despite hopes that COVID-19 would dissipate within weeks, the world came to a halt, and Dr. Fakadej’s volunteer efforts were paused for the indefinite future.
Now, Dr. Fakadej has returned from her first humanitarian trip in over three years after partnering with Southern Eye Institute, a nonprofit created to support the Southern Eye Clinic in Sierra Leone, Africa.
Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries in Africa, and the eighth least developed country in the world as of 2019, despite being one of the richest diamond-mining countries in the world. After an 11-year-long civil war that ended in 2002, the citizens of Sierra Leone were left with a crumbling economy and significant health and humanity issues. As of 2018, the life expectancy ranged from 29-42 years old, and the adult literacy rate hovered around 41 percent.
Southern Eye Clinic was founded by Dr. Cathy Schanzer, whose humanitarian efforts as an ophthalmologist began in 1988. In 2005, Dr. Schanzer along with executive director, Tom Lewis, partnered together to build the Southern Eye Clinic in a small village called Serabu, just 150 miles southeast of Sierra Leone’s capital.
The initial plot of land along with the building were donated to their cause by the Catholic Mission. Over the course of several years, Tom supervised renovations including the addition of a well-based water system, electricity, exam areas, an optical dispensary and an operating room. Due to the delicate nature of eye surgery, the operating room included state-of-the-art equipment along with air conditioning.
The clinic is entirely supported by monetary and supply donations and runs off multiple generators that provide power to surgical rooms and exam lanes, as electricity in Serabu is uncommon. Every exam, medication, pair of eyeglasses, and surgery is offered to the citizens of Sierra Leone free of charge. In addition to being completely free, Southern Eye Clinic trains and employs citizens of the local villages to help run the clinic and assist with seeing patients.
“What Cathy, Tom, and the rest of the team at Southern Eye Clinic are doing is really healing a community from the inside out,” Dr. Fakadej says, “When someone is blind from cataracts, they often need assistance from a family member or members of the community just to get around and most people suffering from blindness are unable to hold jobs.”
When you free someone of the burden of blindness, you are often freeing their caregiver which allows more members of the community to heal, grow, and provide for their families.
After 10 days in Serabu, Dr. Fakadej and her fellow colleagues had more than 2,000 patients, ages ranging from children to the elderly, and performed over 475 surgeries. Many patients received cataract surgery and regained their eyesight within hours after spending more than 20 years living with blindness.
“This was really a humbling group effort,” said Dr. Fakadej. “I may have been the one from Carolina Eye to get on the plane and perform some of the surgeries and treat the patients, but I could not have done it without the donations and the prayers.” Carolina Eye Associates along with others outside the organization donated eye medications, surgical tools, and personal protective equipment.
“Being able to assist this incredible organization in helping to cure blindness in Sierra Leone will stay with me forever but there is still much more work to be done,” added Dr. Fakadej.
In America, cataract surgery is often taken for granted, as it’s a quick and readily available procedure that only takes about 20 to 30 minutes per eye. However, cataracts are the leading cause of blindness, affecting nearly 8 million people worldwide according to the World Health Organization. Cataracts are curable as opposed to other eye diseases like glaucoma and age-related macular degeneration that have yet to develop a permanent cure. Many citizens of Sierra Leone and neighboring countries go more than 10 years living with this eye condition that is curable.
To learn more about Southern Eye Clinic in Serabu, Sierra Leone or to donate to their cause, visit southerneyeinstitute.net.
Dr. Anna Fakadej is a specialist in refractive cataract surgery at Carolina Eye Associates, P.A. She sees patients in Asheboro, Rockingham, and Pinehurst.
Feature photo: Dr. Anna Fakadej (left) and other health care workers pose for a picture.