Serving as a Maryknoll lay missioner in South Sudan, I began experiencing a slight problem in one eye and decided to visit a hospital nearby. I did not know I was about to have a surprising encounter with someone who carries on the legacy of a longtime Maryknoll friend.
At Kapoeta Mission Hospital, I was introduced to Grace Baako, who has worked there since 2010, first as a nurse and later also as ophthalmic clinical officer. Grace, it turns out, was set on the path to her profession in eye care by Maryknoll Father John Barth.
“In South Sudan, part of my work was setting up eye clinics where none previously existed — which basically meant anywhere in the country,” Father Barth says. “I was pointed in the direction of a small Catholic hospital in the remote town of Kapoeta. It was underfunded by the government and offered no eye care at the time.” The priest recalls, “Nurse Grace loaned me a tent to stay in overnight, because there was no guest house in town.”
In 2015, Grace was among the local health care workers sponsored by Maryknoll for a diploma course in ophthalmology at Kilimanjaro Christian Medical University College in neighboring Tanzania. “Grace was an enthusiastic candidate to be trained to treat minor eye injuries and cataracts which unnecessarily blind many people,” Father Barth says.
“There were three of us,” Grace says. “One was becoming a surgeon and we two others became ophthalmic clinical officers.” Grace passed her final examinations with the highest grades in her class. “This is something I am proud of because I wanted to show Father John and Bishop Paride Taban (bishop of Torit Diocese at the time) that I appreciated their support,” she says. “I wanted them to be proud of me.”
Having completed the course, Grace returned to the hospital. Then, for about 18 months, she took a position working on a mobile surgical unit with The Carter Center, which collaborates with the Ministry of Health to reach vulnerable communities, including settlements for displaced people. The travel and living conditions were difficult. Nevertheless, Grace found the experience rewarding: “There were a lot of people who needed the surgery and they were grateful for the care.”
Upon finishing her period of service with The Carter Center, Grace returned to her dual position of nurse and ophthalmic clinical officer at the Kapoeta Mission Hospital. “I see an average of 40 patients per month, with a maximum of 80,” she says. Cataracts are the major problem, she reports. If a case requires serious medical interventions, she refers the patient to the only eye clinic in South Sudan, the Buluk Eye Clinic in the capital, Juba — founded by none other than Father Barth. She notes that the missioner also provided the Kapoeta Mission Hospital with equipment and supplies which are still being used today.
Grace, whom Father Barth describes as “a dedicated and kind person,” says she loves her work. She and her husband have also adopted two children and are raising them as their own. Grace quietly declares, “With the grace of God, I will work a long time for my people.”
Father Barth adds, “I’m pleased to know she has persevered in her work, addressing preventable blindness in that corner of South Sudan.”
“I am grateful to Father John for giving me the chance to improve myself. It was through the experience of college that I grew in self-confidence and dignity,” Grace says. Her work is important to non-governmental organizations, government ministries, the local diocese — and especially, to the people she helps. “I say a prayer for Father John every time I help people with their sight,” she says. “May God bless him and all the Maryknoll priests.”
Featured Image: Nurse Grace Baako, who works at Kapoeta Mission Hospital, credits Maryknoll Father John Barth for sponsoring her training in advanced eye care. (Gabe Hurrish/South Sudan)