To Catch Your Dreams: Stories of Sight from Fiji

Natuvu Creek, Fiji

Dr. Randall Goodman, ophthalmologist from California’s central coast led a team of 16 medical and dental professionals to the Mission at Natuvu Creek, on the eastern coast of Vanua Levu, Fiji’s second largest island, October 3-7, 2016.   Together, Goodman and a second ophthalmologist, Dr. Sonny Higginbotham, of Pismo Beach, CA, performed 74 eye surgeries, including a cornea transplant, cataract removals, and for the first time on such a mission, glaucoma surgeries, made possible by donations of glaucoma stents from SEE International. 

In addition to the eye surgeries, two California dentists treated over 160 patients during the week.  The medical and dental professionals were accompanied by nurses, operating room specialists, an optician, product experts, a retired engineer and corporate executive – all working together to serve people seeking medical help. 

Many patients travelled by bus or boat 12 or more hours to receive the medical care that is not readily available locally.  The arduous trips were worth it, according to the patients.  After all, what’s a 12-hour trip when it means seeing again.

Spearing the Sun

Matarasi Cokanasiga is a big gregarious man with style and presence.  Today he strides into the Natuvu Creek Mission eye clinic with a wide smile and a pat on the back or gentle joke for other patients sitting patiently on the wooden slat benches that line the colorfully muraled walls of the small waiting room.

Matarasi is particularly optimistic today.  If he can re-gain his eyesight through treatment by the visiting U.S. eye doctors, he can be ready to take another long-dreamed-of step in his career.   His family name, Cokanasiga, means “to spear the sun” – or as Matarasi believes, “to catch your dreams.”   And with his eyesight back, he will be ready to catch his dream of becoming the Anglican Vicar for the region.  The induction service is scheduled for the following week, and Matarasi wants to be ready.

Matarasi Cokanasiga Pre-Op

Matarasi Cokanasiga Pre-Op

He was born into a religious family devoted to learning.  His father was a Methodist minister, and Matarasi followed in his father’s footsteps, even fulfilling his father’s dream of having him attend the Suva Theology School in Fiji.  During that time, Matarasi felt a calling to the Anglican church, and when his father passed away, he joined the Anglican church.  In 2006 he was ordained as an Anglican priest.

Matarasi with Dr Goodman Post Op

Matarasi with Dr Goodman

As Matarasi grew professionally, he realized he could serve his church best by also understanding business and management, and he began studying business concepts on his computer.  But by 2010 he realized his eyesight was weakening and several years later, it was so poor he could not read books or work on his computer at all.  In 2015 he resigned from his position because he felt he could not see adequately to perform his duties.

So, today in the clinic, a lot is riding on what the doctors can do for him.  He confides that he’s nervous.

After examination, Dr. Goodman tells Matarasi that he has a cataract and glaucoma. Fortunately he is a good candidate for a combined cataract and glaucoma surgery. Using a iStent donated by the US company, Glaukos, for Dr. Goodman’s mission to Fiji, some of the pressure in his eye can be lessened after the cataract is removed. The iStent procedure is a relatively new technique of inserting a stent to allow the eye’s natural fluids to flow more readily.  The surgery would be short, and Matarasi would only have to return the next day for a short check-up.

Matarasi doesn’t hesitate for a moment.  He wants this opportunity. Shortly after he is prepared for surgery, he is walked into the operating room.

The next day when Matarasi returned to the little clinic, he had an even wider smile.  “I will be able to study again, and I will fulfill my dream of catching the sun and becoming a Fiji priest who understands business management,” he said.

All in the Family

Premilla Wati is acting as the family chauffeur, bringing her three aunties on the 12-hour journey from Labasa to the Mission at Natuvu Creek eye clinic.  Two of her aunties, Meenachi Madhavan and Daya Wati know they have cataracts, and want to undergo the surgeries to remove the cataracts on this trip.  But their sister, Rami Pati, has an additional problem.  She has glaucoma, and does not know what, if anything, can be done.

Rami is 69 years old, and was born into a family of sugarcane farmers, one of five children.  She fondly remembers that her favorite chore was picking beans for the family’s suppers, and she always loved the goats that lived on their farm.  They had horses, too.  Her mother kept a glorious flower garden of dahlias, the color of the saris they wore on special occasions.  Rami loved to follow her mother around and learn the art of making sweets.  She also loved sewing and the intricate and delicate stitches of making saris.

Rami married a farmer, like her father, and together they also have five children.  Seven or eight months ago she lost her sight in one eye.  But she didn’t lose her hope.  “If I can see the American doctor, I can see my children,” she said.

Dr. Goodman was able to remove Rami’s cataract and treat her glaucoma with the insertion of the Glaukos-donated iStent. This glaucoma procedure is a relatively new technique of inserting a microscopic stent into the drainage area in the eye after cataract surgery to allow the eye’s natural fluids to flow more readily.

Rami with Her Two Sisters

Rami with her two sisters after surgery with Dr Goodman

The next morning the lively and laughing trio of sisters returned to the clinic for their post-op exams, all wearing stylish white framed sunglasses.  They are all smiles – and tears of joy.  They can see – and they know it will only get better from here.  They are kind and loving aunties, used to bestowing their affection on the many children in their big families.  Today Dr. Goodman and the eye clinic staff are receiving the hugs and warm kisses for the gift of being able to clearly see their children.

Artist Sees Again

Dulsiamma is a 63-year-old grandmother and Fijian artist.  She is a strikingly beautiful and quietly contained woman, carefully dressed in a bright pink chiffon sari-dress.  She is clearly nervous about what the ophthalmologist might tell her about her eye.

Several years ago, one of her four little grandchildren playfully threw a heavy plastic toy, striking Dulsiamma in the eye.  And since then her eyesight has slipped away until today she can see very little out of the eye with the old injury.

Dulsiamma was one of eight children whose father was a “copra cutter” for the production of oil.  She grew up net-fishing with her brothers every day, hoping for a big fish that could be sold for top money.

When she was a girl, Dulsiamma had a dream deep in her heart to become a nurse, but she did not learn to read, so she used her natural talent as an artist to share the beauty of the Fijian countryside on canvas.  Today in her heart is the hope that she will be able to regain her eyesight so that she can continue this work.  She has travelled to the clinic for 12 hours by boat on the chance that a miracle will happen.

And for her, it does.  Dr. Goodman tells Dulsiamma that the trauma she suffered to her eye may have caused her glaucoma.  He described to her the surgery he can perform to remove a cataract and also insert a stent for the glaucoma.  She is delighted, but scared.  She asks one of the volunteers from California to come into the operating room with her.

Dulsiamma In Surgery

Dulsiamma having cataract surgery with iStent glaucoma implant by Dr. Goodman, accompanied by volunteer nurse Ke Ja Lee

After the 10-minute surgery to remove the cataract and insert the iStent donated by Glaukos for this mission trip, she and her husband are able to stay in a local guest house overnight. When she returns for her post-op exam the next morning, her face is wreathed with quiet joy.  Her life as an artist will resume.  She will now be able to see nuance in the natural beauty around her, and will continue to share that beauty with others beyond her world.  And when she kisses the California volunteer goodbye her face is wet with tears of happiness.


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