Missioner establishes eye clinic in a country where three out of four people lack healthcare
Two years ago Maryknoll Father John Barth saw a group of people in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, treating patients’ eye infections under a tree with no equipment but a flashlight, two chairs and some medicine. The building that used to be the eye clinic was behind them; it had been looted during the war.
“It was a shell of a building,” he says. “I talked to the (health) ministry and said, ‘I think I can do something to help.’ ”
The missioner, whose experience includes building and managing Takeo Eye Hospital in Cambodia, had been looking for ways to serve those in need of eye care since he arrived in South Sudan in 2011. “Now there are only three eye doctors in a country of more than 9 million people,” he says.
As a result of decades of war and lack of resources to treat endemic diseases, many South Sudanese are losing their sight.
The Maryknoll priest from Buffalo, N.Y., and a growing network of organizations are working to change the lives of people suffering from preventable blindness. Father Barth used Maryknoll grants as seed money to buy medicine, basic furniture, cleaning supplies and minor equipment. As a result, the Buluk Eye Clinic reopened its doors in April 2013.
With a new infrastructure and 14 staff members, the clinic had 6,000 consultations and 150 surgeries in 2014. Two visiting eye doctors from Egypt screened hundreds of people and conducted the first operations at the clinic. Father Barth hopes other ophthalmologists will come to Juba for short-term eye camps.
“Now that we have the infrastructure, I hope we can put the welcome mat out for eye doctors and nurses qualified to come,” Father Barth says.
Because qualified eye care specialists are scarce, former workers were asked out of retirement to help. Finding healthcare professionals qualified to study ophthalmology is a challenge, he says. Illiteracy and disrupted education are part of the problem, he explains. “A 15-year-old girl in South Sudan is more likely to die in childbirth than finish primary school,” Father Barth says.
South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011, after decades of war. As the country was trying to heal, an inter-ethnic civil war broke out in 2013, killing more than 10,000 and displacing more than 1.5 million people. With the warring sides signing and then breaking truce agreements, there is no clear end in sight. The conflict stunts the country’s crude oil production, which accounts for more than 95 percent of its economy, resulting in even less government funding for healthcare.
“The odds are not good, but we remain hopeful. As a Catholic priest, I have to have hope,” says Father Barth. He adds that he can see the effects of the crisis on the South Sudanese people he serves, even though his mission is far from the actual fighting.
Places like the Buluk clinic offer a ray of hope. Christian Blind Mission, which partnered with Father Barth for nine years in Cambodia, gave the clinic a three-year grant in March to help build a ward, dig a well to provide fresh water, expand the operating room and buy a land cruiser to conduct outreach. “Training and infrastructure are essential for long-term solutions,” he says.
So far, Maryknoll’s grant money also helped train nurses and a soon-to-be cataract surgeon, who is studying in Tanzania. Cataract operations can solve one of the main causes of avoidable blindness in South Sudan.
The third doctor in the country, a South Sudanese ophthalmologist who just graduated from the University of Nairobi, Kenya, recently joined the Buluk staff. “Now we are officially a hospital,” Father Barth says. “We can help so many more people because of him.”
Father Barth remembered the first three children who came to the clinic with tumors in their eyes.
Unfortunately, their retinoblastoma, a rare cancer condition, was too advanced to treat.
“Since then, we have sent a little girl, Mamo, to Kenyatta (National) Hospital (in Kenya), which has a ward specifically for children with retinoblastoma,” he says. Three-year-old Mamo also needed six months of chemotherapy, so Maryknoll kept her and her family close to the hospital in Nairobi to avoid the arduous trip between two countries every month. Overall, the clinic spent about $6,000 for Mamo to see again.
The clinic also sends children with congenital cataracts for surgery in Kampala, Uganda. “We put them on a bus for 10 hours to have their eyes open for the first time,” he says.
This year, staff at the Buluk clinic will screen schoolchildren around Juba and give basic training to teachers and healthcare workers from remote places, so they can give eye exams and identify who needs glasses and who has a more serious condition.
“I hope that by 2017 we’re really revved up and can have several eye camps,” says Father Barth, adding that he looks forward to re-creating the work of the clinic in other South Sudanese states. “The key is starting momentum, like with this hospital. Just giving them the chance they need, so they can take it from there,” Father Barth says. “They just needed some help to get started and that is what Maryknoll does.”
Maria-Pia Negro Chin is a freelance writer based in Queens, N.Y.
Featured Image: Achec Teng Wok, who is blind, stands outside her home in Abyei, a contested region along the border between Sudan and South Sudan. (CNS/P. Jeffrey)