Team Licensed Optician in Malawi

After over a year of planning and preparation, Bryan Todd and I set off for 3 weeks with a team from New St James Presbyterian Church in London, ON, for a outreach trip to provide eye care for villages in Malawi Africa. Our goal as Team Licensed Optician was to offer basic refractions and dispense glasses to areas outside the cities of Zomba and Blantyre that have very limited access to these services.

Our team of 6 packed 16 oversized suitcases to the maximum allowable weigh of which 6 were dedicated to over 2000 pairs of brand new glasses that had been donated for us to take. We padded the eyeglasse suitcases with 2000 hand sewn eyeglass cases made by the ladies of New St James in just 8 weeks. Of course, travelling to developing countries through 4 airports over 2.5 days has it’s risks and 3 of the cases with eyeglasses didn’t arrive with us.

We started our clinics in Chuluchosema, a small villages about 15kms outside of Zomba. People had walked for miles when they heard we were coming and started lining up at 5-6am each morning. When we arrived for the clinic, local ladies greeted us singing and dancing to welcome the team to their village. It gave me a whole new expectation of what arriving for work should be like.

Also, just to give you an idea of what glasses cost in Malawi. A pair of single vision, CR39 in a basic frame would be about 74,000 Kwacha or $130 CND. Sounds like a great deal, until you realize that a teacher makes 6,500 Kwacha a month so it would take 11 months of their full salary to buy a pair of glasses. No coatings, no high index, no designer frames and NEVER any health benefits. How many of you have someone willing or able to pay 11 months worth of their wages for a pair of glasses? That is the gift we gave the people of these communities.

Bryan and I set up in 8X10 exam rooms that only had a table and a chair or bench. We each had one of the members from New St James, Jessie with me and Karen with Bryan, as an assistant to find the right RX glasses and to take note and an local person as an interpreter, who spoke Chechewa.

image1-1Norman was one of the first patients I assessed. At 68yrs old he worked as a labourer and had never worn glasses. When the autofractor gave me a reading of -7.00, I thought it must be off due to the excess lighting that was happening in the room. But sure enough, after doing a manual VA with trial lenses, I fit Norman with a pair of -6.50 glasses and for the first time in his life, he saw leaves on the trees. I wanted to spend the rest of the day with Norman as he saw the world for the first time in 68yrs.

We would have many children come to have their eyes checked. Only toddlers or babies were with an adult and usually that was because the adult was getting their eyes checked. Otherwise, they would wait in line by themselves for hours, often missing a day of school with the hopes of being able to see to learn for every other day after that.

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Christopher was an exception to this. He was the only child who was escorted by both his mother and father. Christopher was 4yrs old and his eyes didn’t focus straight ahead but often rolled up. His parents believed that he was blind and was hoping that I could help. I checked with a penlight and noted that he could track the light. The autorefraction read that he was about a -4.00 which I had in a children’s frame that would fit. As I went to fit the glasses on him, I asked his mother to come and kneel in front of him. If the glasses worked, I didn’t want a stranger to be the first person he saw. When the glasses went on, his pupils focused to the center of the lenses. I asked his mother to have him reach out and touch her nose and he did. Christopher wasn’t blind and his parents couldn’t have been more overjoyed.

After 3 days of clinics, we completed 244 assessments and less than 10 of those didn’t need glasses. Our supply of glasses was getting low and with 4 more clinics, Bryan and I both hoped that we would find that the airline had delivered the other 3 cases before we started in the next village.

It was our great joy to arrive in Blantyre and find that our wish had come true and we had a lot of work to sort and prepare glasses for the next group of clinics. Our next village was Chipagala, about a 10kms commute from Blantyre each day. This is where New St James had built the Timvane children’s center and were working to develop a primary school.

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Once again, we were greeted by the village ladies singing and dancing and we had an official welcome by the village chief and the church’s pastor Abusa Jonas. We were treated like visiting dignitaries.

Our assessment rooms were a little bit larger, about 15X20 and will be the class rooms of the new school. Once again, the line up started by 6am, by people who had walked 1-2hrs for the opportunity to have their eyes checked and be fit with much needed glasses. They came dressed in their very best clothes and even after waiting so long were patient and grateful for all that we could do.

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17yr old Patrick came to get glasses so that he could see the board at school. When looking at his eye with the penlight, a small black irregularity with white scarring seemed to be a foreign body embedded in his eye. I asked about his pain level and how long he had felt this way, it had been a few months. I asked him if he could get to the hospital to have this looked at, he said no he was from another village and it was too far and would cost too much. I discussed this with our team and we decided to take him and pay for the removal and any after care. The cost was 5000 Kwacha or $8 CND.

Unfortunately, glasses can’t solve all the concerns that are brought to these clinics. 70yr Pnanzi arrived on my 2nd day. Both of his corneas completely scarred over so that only a corneal transplant would give him any sight. He had been told this by other doctors but had waited in line 9hrs convinced that I would be able to give him a pair of glasses so that he could read his bible again. It broke my heart to have to tell him that the doctors were right, to show him that even the strongest readers I had wouldn’t make a difference and to have him leave thinking not that I couldn’t help him, but that I wouldn’t. He is still waiting for a miracle that probably won’t come.

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After 4 days of clinics, our time had come to an end. It was very difficult to walk pass the line of about 50-60 people still waiting, that we couldn’t tell to come back tomorrow. We have an open invitation to come back anytime.

In total, Team Licensed Optician, Bryan, myself, Jessie and Karen assessed and fitted 948 people with glasses. We couldn’t have done that without the generous support of the following companies and people who ensured that we had brand new glasses to give. THANK YOU to Paul Faibish and Plastic Plus, who also donated the autofractors we took with us, Hoya Canada, Ronor, Centennial Optical, Plan-B Eyewear, 20/20 Optical, Monkey See Optical, Loblaws Optical Group, Rachel Hill at Personal Optical, Deborah Perry at Optika Eleckic, Saskatoon,SK, The Frame Barn and Eyes On Richmond. Also thanks to Peggy Hagwood Dryer and Christine Gauthier who came to London on their time off to help with a practice clinic to train our team, label and sort glasses and pack our bags.

Finally, I want to extend my gratitude to the Ontario Opticians Association and the Optician Association of Canada. Thank you so much for your support and letting us represent you and our professional colleagues. It is a great honour to carry our banner and let people know what we do and how we change lives. It is my great hope that we can have a small team do this every year.

Gayle Harrison, RO




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