Ray of Hope for the Visually Impaired

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Several millions of Nigerians are at the risk of becoming visually impaired due to cataract disease. But a free eye surgery initiative in Abia State hopes to change the narrative. Martins Ifijeh writes

It is true the eye is the window to the world, the mind and the soul. It is also true that with it, life can be better appreciated in colours and shades. But what happens to those who cannot see with their eyes? How then can they see the world and the beauty that lies within it?

That is the dilemma of 36 million people globally who cannot tell between light and darkness, bright and dim lustre, or even see what the faces of their loved ones or other people look like. All they see is nothing.

To be clear, apart from the 36 million outrightly blind humans on earth, there are 253 million of them with severe or moderate visual impairment, while there are at least 1.1 billion people globally with near-vision impairment.

Unfortunately, 89 per cent of those affected live in low and middle-income countries like Nigeria where about 55 per cent of women take a major chunk of the prevalence.

On specifics, while the prevalence in Nigeria is one of the highest globally, amounting to about 1.6 million, Southwestern part of the country has the lowest incidence rate, while the major chunk of the burden is found in the South-east due to poor interventions and few eye care facilities in the region.

It is in tackling this scourge, especially in the South-east, where the prevalence is highest in the country that the former governor of Abia State, Senator Theodore Orji, representing Abia Central senatorial districts at the National Assembly, started the T.A. Orji Free Eye Surgery Initiative at the beginning of 2018. He engaged the services of a renowned hi-tech Ophthalmologist at Anya Specialist Eye Clinic, Umuahia, Dr. Anya Kalu, to help people with eye problems regain their vision irrespective of their political leaning, religion or tribe.

The initiative, targeting persons with severe or mild cataract in Abia State, the South-east region, and other places in the country, has helped in restoring eye sights to at least 270 beneficiaries already, especially the poor, who ordinarily would not be able to afford a cataract surgery costing N65, 000.

One of such beneficiaries is 52 years old Mrs. Stella Elezue from Abia, who has been battling with cataract for the past nine years, a condition that has taken her to several hospitals, including the University of Calabar Teaching Hospital, and other federal hospitals within the region.

“I was no longer seeing at all with the eye, and this made me stopped going to farm and the market. I was getting incapacitated by the day,” but Elezue says when she heard of the free eye surgery initiative in Umuahia, she took advantage of it, noting that the surgery has been successfully conducted on her.

“Now I have gone back to my business. I can now do all the things the blind eye prevented me from doing, I was blind, now I can see,” says the elated woman.

For 77 years old Mrs. Chimkwe Uche, her joy knew no bound. It was a moment of mixed feelings as she reminisced the three years she went through intense pains and sleepless nights because of the troubles associated with the otherwise preventable disease.

For her, she will never forget the day her eye sight was restored, courtesy of an in initiative she described as God’s divine orchestration at the time she was almost going completely blind.

“Before now, I used to call my children in far away Lagos to complain that I was going blind. Honestly, I thought I may end up leaving this world someday a blind woman. But my hope has been restored. The devil has been put to shame. When I leave here, I am going to send new pictures to my children so that they can see that their mother is now healthy with good eyes,” she says.

According to her, Senator Orji, fondly called Ochendo for his philanthropist gestures, has come to wipe her shame away, adding that she was just one among several thousands of women who pray for him every day for the good he is doing for his people.

Seventy-three years old Mr. Friday Onwubuiko, is also one of the 270 persons who have benefitted from the initiative since January 6, 2018 when it started. His surgery was conducted last week.

Onwubuiko, who is currently on a few months rest pending when he recovers fully, told THISDAY that he has been suffering cataract for more than five years, and that his situation began to worsen in 2017. “I am very happy it didn’t get to an irreversible point. Since yesterday when the cataract was removed from my eyes, there is a big difference. I can see clearly now, but doctor said the little pain still noticed will go down with time,” he added.

He described the gesture from Senator Orji as a practical package that has had direct beneficial effect on people of Abia and environs.

“Those who know Ochendo can testify he is a very thorough person. You can see he didn’t just set this up anyhow, as most politicians would normally do. He went to fetch a very good doctor as well to lead the surgical team. Dr. Anya is very meticulous. Initially I was scared, but I can’t feel any pain in the eye. It doesn’t even seem like a surgery was done there safe for the difference in vision. Ochendo will live long for his people,” he added.

The initiative did not only target the poor and non-educated in the society, it was spread out to all shades of people, including middle class Nigerians, whether from Abia, Imo or other states.

One of such persons is Dr. Sam Ohaeri, who currently works with the Ministry of Health in Abia State. His cataract was already at an advanced stage. He could have gone blind anytime soon. But as a medical doctor himself, there was no better way to prevent the blindness which was starring at his face, than to key into the free eye initiative offered by Senator Orji. “The doctor then told me after diagnosis, that my case was unique because the lens needed for me cannot be found in the country. He placed a call to Ochendo, who approved that my lens be imported into the country. Within days, the lens was delivered to me. Though it came at an extra cost, I was very happy to bear the extra amount.”

Ohaeri was the former project manager and executive secretary of the Abia State Agency for the Control of AIDS (ASACA).

He said he could not outrightly say whether the cataract he had was induced by external factors or genetic. He however advised that sugary substances could play a role on the issue; hence Nigerians should minimise their sugar intakes.

Another doctor, who benefitted from the gesture is 65 years old Dr. Sunny Ibeleme from Umuahia North. He said: “My surgery was successful, and I can see well than I used to. It is like magic. All thanks to our senator who has continued to find ways to better the lives of Abians.

Ibeleme, who has a doctorate degree in medical laboratory science and microbiology, said Senator Orji remains the most performing senator in the country, adding that he was not surprised he is touching lives.

“While as a governor, he has always had the flair to help people. He is a big brother to us all,” he said.

The gesture was also extended to traditional rulers. His Royal Majesty, Eze Sir Donatus Aguiyi, who did not only encourage his subjects to take advantage of the free eye surgery to tackle their visual impairment, he came on his own to get treated.

Aguiyi, who has been billed for cataract surgery said this was just one among the several gestures the senator has brought to Abia State since he was elected a senator.

“Any initiative that promotes the health of our people is what Ochendo sticks out for. He is my son and I am very proud of him and his philanthropic activities to Abians. This initiative will help a lot of people, especially poor Nigerians. Out of the senators currently in the National Assembly, I can confidently say Ochendo is the only one with a functional constituency office.

“God knows why he was a chief of staff, governor, and now a senator. He is using his influence to connect the people. His vision is that no poor person in Igbo land should go blind. We encourage others to take advantage of this and come for treatment. Ochendo is here to help humanity.”

He also poured encomium on the senator’s son, Hon. Chinedum Orji, the Leader of Abia State House of Assembly, whom he said was already following in his father’s footstep. “Ikuku is with the State House of Assembly, and he has established himself in Umuahia metropolis as a philanthropist passionate about health, education and economic empowerment.”

When THISDAY reached Senator Orji to understand his vision behind the initiative, he said his desire to address visual impairment in the country was prompted out of the personal experience he had when he was in detention in 2007 for three months, prior to his election as governor of Abia State.

He said at the time, he was placed in a dungeon by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) for an offence he knew nothing about, adding that it was only by the grace of God he didn’t end up a blind person after the experience.

“From that moment, I came to understand that the eyes are the most important sensory organs of the body. Without it, the beauty or ugliness of the world cannot be seen. It is a very disastrous experience to go blind.

“That got me thinking about those who may have been in that same situation and not privileged enough to tackle it. I also realised that when I was governor, half of the people I was seeing were using glasses. And then it got to me that eye problem is a major issue for everybody.”

Ochendo Global, as he is fondly called by some of his admirers, then decided to help out in tackling the scourge. He therefore singled out cataract, which experts say constitutes the major cause of blindness in Nigeria. “Immediately I realised the major issue was cataract, I told Dr. Anya we needed to go to work.”

Among the hundreds of thousands of Nigerians Ochendo has personally assisted is Dr. Anya, who he supported in getting an all important training in Bangladesh to be a specialist in laser eye surgery. When Dr. Anya came back from Bangladesh after successfully completing his training, it was time for Ochendo to tap into his knowledge to help visually impaired Nigerians, especially poor people who ordinarily would not be able to afford cataract surgery.

“Then we decided to use his clinic as the centre for the eye surgery initiative, because we know there are people who potentially can go blind because they do not have what it takes to treat themselves. Anya has performed several surgeries. I knew he is a competent hand.”

To further lay credence to how he has been described by beneficiaries as someone with a large heart, Ochendo told THISDAY that the initiative was not only limited to his constituency or Abians, but that his burning desire was to see the prevalence of visual impairment drastically reducing in the country. “Any Nigerian with eye issue can access it. As of now, I don’t have facility to carry it from one state to the other, but we have domiciled it in Abia State capital which is accessible to anybody, anywhere in the country.”

He said the project will go on as far as God gives him the resources, which he described as being heavily capital intensive. “It is like running a hospital for people with sickness of the eyes. When they come to you, you access them, treat them, buy consumables and everything and you don’t gain anything. The doctor has some staff that have to be paid. The doctor is a lecturer who has to be paid as well,” he said.

The senator said when he realised that Easterners have more burden of the disease in the country, due to many factors, including dearth of eye clinics and personnel, he decided to look at sustainability plan of the project, hence the need to include in the initiative training for doctors.

“After their training, they can now spread out and do eye treatments in other hospitals. Some can start helping Dr. Anya. If Anya is supposed to do five surgeries in a day, you will realise that those trained can assist in increasing the number of surgeries daily to say 20. We want to be able to help as many Nigerians with visual impairment as much as we can,” he added.

Ochendo called on other privileged Nigerians to partner with eye clinics in their regions so that collectively, the growing issue can be tackled.

The chief surgeon for the initiative, Dr. Anya, whose name coincidentally in Ibo language means ‘eye’ is a Consultant Ophthalmologist and Phacoemulsification Cataract Surgeon, said the initiative was timely in the South-east because the region lacks facilities and other resources for eye care interventions.

“South-west has a barrage of eye hospitals. In the South-east, we are not lucky to have many of these eye centres. “It was during Ochendo’s time that he built the first ever Eye Centre in Abia State, which was well equipped to provide international standard service. Also, there are more eye specialists in the West and North than we have in the East,” he said.

He said the Senator T.A. Orji Free Eye Surgery Initiative is divided into three phases, adding that they were currently in the second phase.

“The first phase started on January 6th this year with 160 persons benefiting from the surgeries. It was our pilot study, so we used it to gauge the feasibility of the programme. Fortunately, the pilot study was successful. Beneficiaries paid a little percentage of the amount, while His Excellency took care of the rest.

“That is what prompted phase two, which we are currently doing now. Everything in this phase is totally free; from registration, surgeries, drugs, and all. All the patients need do is to come to our facility and get examined. If the problem requires surgery, we do it and give drugs that will last two weeks or so. By that second week, the patient must have fully recovered. Each surgery, if it were to be done outside will cost about N65, 000. So you can imagine, so far we have done almost 300. That is outside the facilities and equipment being used.

“The turnout of this phase two is so big that theatre has been booked till June, yet the awareness is still not loud. “A blind person is an economic challenge to his or her family and the country at large. Blindness is a burden to anybody. And you can imagine that about 0.7 per cent of Nigerians are burdens to themselves, their families, their communities and the society at large because they are blind. About 46 per cent of these blind Nigerians got it through cataract. So this intervention is one unique way to prevent blindness.

“The third phase, which will start soon, will help address manpower deficiency in this area. His Excellency asked one question. He said assuming we have all done our part, what happens tomorrow, who takes over from us? So he made it clear, that the kind of training I received in Bangladesh must be replicated here. That is why we have acquired another flat beside us, which is our surgical centre. We are expecting some instruments, including live surgical videos in theatre, so that we can record the surgeries, play them back for patients and those doing their trainings.”

He said just the way the surgeries are not restricted to visually impaired persons in Abia, the training will not only be restricted to medical personnel in Abia. “That is why senator is called Ochendo Global. He is a father to all. He always tells us blindness has no constituency. That is why he is not restricting this gesture to Abians alone,” he added.

With this initiative, many Nigerians, who ordinarily would have lost their abilities to see the world and the beauty that lies within it, may just have been freed from the blur that covers the window to the world, mind and soul, which is the eye.