Miracle in the Congo

October 2015 | Stories from the field

By Randal Avolio

President / CEO

When Dr. Kris Karlen and ophthalmic technician Charles Narh volunteered with SEE International to perform free eye surgeries in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), they expected it to be a routine expedition. Most volunteer programs with SEE, provide sight-restoring surgeries to 50-100 blind or vision-impaired individuals. But by the time Karlen and Narh reached the small town of Dienenga this past July, word had spread throughout the countryside. They found a crowd of over 4,000 men, women, and children waiting for them. The medical team of four doctors, two technicians, and two nurses rose to the challenge, however. By the end of the expedition, the team could only describe the results as miraculous. Within twenty-six days, the team managed to screen 4,000 people, and stretched their supplies to perform more than 250 sight-restoring surgeries.

Planned in association with Partners in Mission Through Christ, the expedition required two years of meticulous planning, only coming to fruition in July of 2014. According to the Rev. Dr. Jonathan Baker, who was instrumental in organizing and carrying out the expedition, finding a US licensed surgeon was the first challenge. When Dr. Karlen and Mr. Narh reached out, Baker was elated. “What a huge blessing these two gentlemen brought to the mission!” he recounts. “They arrived with bags and bags full of donations…and hearts ready to serve!” The medical team faced another challenge when it arrived in the Congo on July 8th. Customs officials in the capital of Kinshasa delayed the release of vital supplies and equipment that had been provided by SEE and Alcon, until July 11th , a full week after they were scheduled to arrive.

In the meantime, patients began to arrive in droves at the clinic site. More than 2,300 patients had been registered and screened by the 11th , but surgery could only begin when the supplies arrived. Once they did, the medical team began surgical shifts of up to sixteen hours. By the 13th , the glut of prospective patients had become so great that the clinic had to suspend registrations. The group’s translator, Adolphe Yamba Yamba, had to appear on the local radio station to announce that no more patients could be assessed, but that the team would likely return in 2015. Local pastors sometimes visited the clinic to help mediate the situation, if needed.

In spite of all these hurdles, the medical team remained undaunted. By the time the clinic ended on July 24th , a total of 250 people who had been blind could see again. Parents could go to work and care for their families. Children could go to school and play with their peers. Grandparents could see their grandchildren for the first time. Family members who had previously posed a burden on their loved ones, could now live independent lives. For all these individuals and their families, poverty becomes less of a threat. And now, local doctors know how to easily and inexpensively treat cataracts, pterygia, and other curable eye conditions.

In short, thanks to the generous efforts of Dr. Karlen and Mr. Narh, Dienenga has been transformed. There is still a great deal of work to be done in the DRC. Two hundred and fifty people out of 800,000 is only a drop in the bucket. All in all, however, it is a terrific start, and SEE has scheduled more expeditions to the DRC. As long as amazing people like Kris Karlen and Charles Narh have the will and the energy to devote to the cause of eradicating preventable blindness worldwide, SEE International will remain up to the task.

Blindness in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

The DRC is badly in need of volunteer medical services. The sub-Saharan African nation has suffered a great deal over the past half-century, first under the brutal dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko, then under a series of bloody civil wars that continue to this day. The Fund for Peace ranks it second in its “Failed States Index” (only outpaced by Somalia). This means that political stability and government public services have essentially ceased to exist. For these reasons, proper health care facilities are few and far between, particularly in rural areas like Dienenga.

An estimated 800,000 blind people live in the country. Most of them have lost their sight due to easily treatable conditions like cataracts. But tragically, since most of them lack access to even basic eye care, they are unlikely to regain their vision without help from abroad. This is where organizations like SEE International, in-kind donors like Alcon, and heroic volunteers like Karlen and Narh come into play. SEE provides the supplies, equipment, and coordination needed for volunteer medical professionals to travel to developing countries, Because of SEE’s generous support from donors and corporate partners, surgeons like Dr. Karlen can continue to perform free sight-restoring surgeries, and teach local doctors how to carry out more complicated procedures.

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