Fresh cotton wool was visible in Lydia Zefeniya’s eyes when she emerged from St Andrew’s Anglican Hospital in Kasungu. For almost 20 years, the 78-year-old was one of numerous Malawians who shun eye surgeries thinking they may completely lose their sight.
When asked what first met her eyes, the near-octogenarian had the liberty to mimic the healed blind person in the Bible who said: “I see people like trees.”
She could have said anything without being asked: How come you know things by their names if you were really blind?
The woman lost her eyes 15 years ago. She admittedly saw “nothing” except darkness.
When asked how it felt ever since, she summed it up in one word: “Depressing.”
On July 20 2016, the woman defied age, fear and public misconceptions to fulfil her desire to see again—and she did!
“The future looked bleak,” she said. “There just was no hope, no dreams for tomorrow. I was just waiting for my death. After all, I am old, not as productive as young women in my area.”
The Kalowole villager from T/A Wimbe was clearly pleased to have triumphed over a 15-year struggle with glaucoma, an eye defect which causes irreversible blindness.
Zefaniya joined nearly 1 500 people to regain their sight courtesy of free eye surgeries which the health facility offers in partnership with Medic Malawi, a British charity, since 2014.
The restoration of sight means a second chance for the rural residents who often quit farming, the major source of livelihood, due to the setback.
In fact, Zefeniya used to grow maize, tobacco and groundnuts before she suffered her “worst tragedy”.
The monthly outreach programme, according to chief clinical officer Peter Minjale aims at slowing down loss of sight in the area.
“We want to maintain the vision of our patients,” said Minjale who heads the initiative at the constrained mission hospital.
The medics see up to 30 patients per sitting, but the number could be higher without the negative public perception.
Minjale explained that despite meagre financial and technical resources on their part, the health workers have intensified mass awareness to convince the locals that vision is redeemable.
Zefeniya and many beneficiaries are identified during the inroads into the community.
“We conducted some eye screenings across the district where we identified the cases and arranged to ferry them to the hospital for further treatment,” he said.
Cataracts—the cloudy or opaque areas in a lens of a patient’s eye—are the most widespread sight problem in the communities.
The condition causes blurred vision and increases sensitivity to glare.
Various studies conducted in communities and healthcare facilities show cataracts contribute to up to 50 percent of all blindness.
Up to 80 in 100 cases of blindness are caused by preventable or treatable conditions, reports Eye for Development.
The organisation, which strives for better optical health in the country, estimates that there are over 150 000 Malawians with blindness.
However, Zefeniya’s condition accounts for 15 in every 100 cases.
This puts glaucoma at par with trachoma. Other causes include congenital cataract, vitamin A deficiency, measles and harmful traditional practices.
St Andrew’s Hospital has been engaging experts, both locals and expatriates to reverse the problem.
The workforce includes Kamuzu Central Hospital (KCH) ophthalmologist, Dr Amos Salimanda-Nyaka, who takes charge of the monthly surgeries.
In operating theatre, the elderly, the likes of Zefaniya, dominated the patients’ list.
Eye problems increase correspondingly with age, Nyaka explained.
“Cataract also increases with age. The lens loses its clarity and becomes opaque, so cataract is mostly a disease of the elderly. After 60, a number of eye diseases may develop that can change your vision permanently,” he explained.
“The sooner the problems are detected and treated, the more likely one can retain good vision,” he said.
However, the youth are not exempted from the free surgeries.
Mike Zgambo, 19, is now back in class at Sankhule Primary School in Wimbe after regaining sight.
Poor vision resulting from cataract forced him out of school when he suffered diabetes over four years ago.
According to Nyaka, many Malawians are faced by blindness due to lack of awareness and shortage of public health facilities that conduct robust eye treatment sessions.
Reliable outlets include Mzuzu Central Hospital and Karonga District Hospital in the North, Zomba and Queen Elizabeth Central Hospitals in the South as well as Nkhoma Mission, KCH and Dae Yeong hospitals in the centre.
Prevention is better than cure, said Nyaka.
He urged: “Take responsibility for your eyes. It’s important to protect your eyes.”
St Andrew’s Hospital, which plans to extend the intervention to Dowa and Ntchisi, estimates that one eye surgery costs nearly K38 000.