Rotary-sponsored eye care program helping to restore sight in Kenya |

Rotary-sponsored eye care program helping to restore sight in Kenya

Wend Schaefer
For the Nevada Appeal

Near Gilgil, deep in the Rift Valley of Kenya, there is a “Granny Club”consisting of native African grandmothers who are raising their orphaned grandchildren. A program to teach the grandmothers to read was failing miserably until it was discovered that the grandmothers could not see well enough to read.

Then several of the grandmothers were fitted with affordable eyeglasses at the Rotary sponsored eye clinic at the nearby St. Mary’s Mission Hospital. Now the grandmothers are learning to read and are able to assist their grandchildren in their studies. Additionally, the grandmothers are now doing fine beadwork to improve their income.

This is just one of the stories of how a Rotary-sponsored grant to improve the eye care in the Southern Rift Valley of Kenya is improving the lives of the poor in that area. Rotary Clubs of Carson City, Tahoe Incline and other neighboring clubs in the Northern Nevada-Tahoe area shared in a $300,000 grant in 2009 to improve eye care in the Southern Rift Valley.

One of the major goals of this Rotary program is to provide basic eye care to the area, most particularly to remote farming areas where medical care of eye conditions has been almost nonexistent. In the program Rotary has recruited nurses and physician assistants from the area and brought them to the local hospital for a free six-month training program.

The first group of five health professionals has now graduated and have returned to their clinics and are providing basic eye care and making proper diagnoses. Of the patient mix at the outreach clinics, 1,029 individuals have benefitted from consultations, 257 patients have received corrective eye glasses and 39 blind patients have had their sight restored through corrective cataract surgery.

The goal of the grant was to perform cataract surgery on 60 patients in the first six months of the program but 82 patients had their sight restored.

When it rains in the Rift Valley, the roads are more treacherous than the snow-covered roads in the Eastern Sierra. Even in areas of slight inclines, vehicles slide right off the road on the slippery roads of slick mud, roads that are difficult to navigate even when it is dry.

Through the Rotary grant a 4-wheel-drive vehicle was purchased to service the outlying areas. The vehicle can carry 12 passengers consisting of staff or patients, or by folding up the benches, carry a large amount of cargo. Visits to the outreach sites began on a regular basis this October.

Modern operating microscopes that allow the trainees to observe the surgery under magnification as it is performed by the cataract surgeon have been purchased. In fact most of the equipment found in eye clinics in the developed world can now be found in the clinic in St. Mary’s Mission Hospitals.

In addition, the home clinics of all the graduates of our training program receive basic instruments for examination of the eye.

The financial model of SMMH is a new concept for this part of Africa. The cost of receiving care at SMMH is by far the lowest in East Africa, but it is not free.

Poverty in the Rift Valley is more severe than in Nairobi where patients can almost always find $40 to have a cataract corrected. The Rotary Foundation does not want to see anyone refused the benefits of any grant because they cannot afford participation.

To help the poorest of the poor to benefit from the 3H grant we have established a 501c3 charity whereby funds have been transferred to SMMH to cover the cost of treating these patients.

Kenya is still very tribal on the social scale and the tribal chief is the one to convince of the effectiveness of our program. One chief has become very proficient in spotting cataracts and referring them to our clinics. Patients who have had their vision restored with glasses or have been cured of their blindness by cataract surgery are spreading the word and organizing outreach visits.

A policy of The Rotary Foundation is that our programs will become self-sufficient. After one year our eye care program is near the break even point. We now can project that it is highly likely that the program will be self sufficient during the second year of the grant.

Some Rotarians from our district have been able to visit the program on an annual basis. The 501c3 has been created by a Rotarian without charge.

Restoration of sight to a blind person can work profound changes in the family and tribe. The blind elderly are usually assigned a child to serve as their eyes. When sight is restored the adult can return to work in the fields or to perform household chores and cooking. The child then is able to return to school.

The picture above shows 61-year-old Sarah who was blinded from cataracts. With her are “her eyes,” her 5-year-old granddaughter, Agnes. Shortly after Sarah had her bandages removed, Agnes disappeared. Two hours later we found her playing with some other children, something she had not been able to do for two years.

• Wend Schaefer, M. D., is president of Rotary Club of Tahoe Incline and chairman of the board, St. Mary’s Mission Hospitals of Kenya Foundation.