SEE International Doctors Restore Sight to City In Zambia

October 2015 | Stories from the field

By Randal Avolio

President / CEO

A Truly International Team Goes To Zambia

SEE International is proud to congratulate Drs. Luis Arévalo Soto and web-sizeXimena Guzmán de Arévalo for a successful surgical program to treat blindness in Chongwe, Zambia. The Arévalos, a married couple, are ophthalmologists who live in El Salvador, and are part of SEE. The Arévalos are passionate about volunteering and using their medical skills to change lives for the better. “For an ophthalmologist, few things are as rewarding as re-storing sight,” says Ximena. Luis, who specializes in cataract removal, augmented his expertise at one of SEE’s training seminars, and during that time he and his wife began to plan a medical program. With coordinating help from Dr. Kris Bjorgen, Ed.D, and Caring Hearts Pediatrics, both of Hartsville, SC, SEE provided the technology, supplies, and communications necessary for program in Chongwe.

Zambia is one of the poorest countries in southern Africa, with three-quarters of its population living below the World Bank poverty threshold of $1 a day. According to the Ministry of Health, an estimated 150,000 Zambians are blind, with cataracts accounting for half of these cases. Treatable or preventable conditions account for approximately 80% of blindness cases in Zambia. Moreover, along with the human cost, blindness takes a tremendous economic toll on the already impoverished country, with an estimated total annual loss of $56 million US. Unfortunately, access to eye care is extremely low for most Zambians, with only 15 ophthalmologists to serve the entire country of over 14 million.

Volunteer Doctors Needed!

For these reasons, volunteer medical professionals, like the Arévalos, are critically needed. Although the hospital staff in Chongwe was eager to help, they were inexperienced in performing cataract removal surgeries. The hospital lacked necessary equipment, and blackouts were common. Luckily, the supplies and technology provided by SEE proved adequate for the clinic; in total, the team screened almost 200 people, and performed sight-restoring surgeries on 29 different individuals.

Luis Arévalo says that seeing a person’s smile after he removes their eye patch is “the most beautiful thing…that moment when they discover they are able to see again is sublime.” One man felt so elated that he began to jump and clap, shouting, “Thank you! Thank you!” Some of the patients, in their desperation to see again, had sought treatment from witch doctors; one woman had been given six mystical tattoos above each eye, in an unsuccessful attempt to treat her cataracts. Luckily, the Arévalos’ volunteer efforts and expertise succeeded where folk remedies failed – to date, all 29 surgical patients can see.

A Cascading Effect

SEE International’s positive impact does not end with their patients, either. “When you restore sight to 29 people, you impact 29 families, and sometimes even whole communities,” says Luis. Because of his volunteer work, people who might have not been able to work due to their blindness can now provide for their families. Children who suffered from blindness, or had to stay home to care for a blind elder, can now go to school. Communities that were deprived of their services, whether they be a farmer, teacher, driver, or something else, can now benefit from their labor.

Overall, the Arévalos feel that the clinic was a great success, and look forward to future SEE trips to Chongwe. They fully recommend SEE International to eye doctors who wish to volunteer, as well. “We feel blessed to bless others,” says Ximena. “Sometimes you may wish for an angel to come and solve your problems. Well, we all have the chance to be that angel for some-one else.”

About Photographer Bryan Watt

Bryan Watt is an internationally renowned professional photographer.  He happened to be traveling in Zambia at the time as the Chongwe clinic in early June.  As a friend of SEE, he volunteered to document the clinic, providing us with beautiful images of the reality of life in Chongwe, as well as the transformation patients go though.  Bryan recorded parts of the eye screening process, the post surgical time period, and the removal of the bandages.  It is truly an amazing moment when a patient sees again for the first time after developing cataracts.  Overall, he has effectively captured this joy on film.

He has received recognition for his volunteer humanitarian activities from the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA), the Photo Imaging Education Association (PIEA), and former President Bill Clinton. He and his wife, Leila, currently live in Laos. 

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