Dr. Rebecca Kolbenson was part of a team of doctors that conducted a five day eye camp in Ethiopia in March. The team conducted 263 cataract surgeries in total.

Local optometrist Dr. Rebecca Kolbenson returns from eye camp in Ethiopian village

Dr. Kolbenson was part of a group of doctors who performed over 250 cataract surgeries across five days.

Perhaps the value of local optometrist Dr. Rebecca Kolbenson’s work in Ethiopia last month is best exemplified by the plight of one man.

The gentleman, who Kolbenson says was completely blind due to cataracts and at most in his early 40s, travelled for five days by himself in order to get treatment from the “eye camp” where Kolbenson was working.

“I don’t even know how he made it,” she said.

“We finally got him in on the last day and he was at the point where we had to lead him up the stairs, lead him to the chair and put his hand on the chair so that he could feel it. When I took off the bandages he just leaned his head back and he was just smiling in the sun and he walked out of there by himself.”

Kolbenson was part of a team of doctors who spent five days in the remote Ethiopian village of Dembi Dollo in March, completing 263 cataract surgeries and nearly 1000 eye exams, with Kolbenson handling patients in the pre and post operation phases. Patients received a surgery on just one of their eyes in order to maximize the number of patients who could have at least some of their vision restored. Through all of those procedures not a single patient received an infection after the surgery, something that Kolbenson calls an exceptionally rare feat.

“As soon as you’d take (their bandages off) they would start crying. It was amazing…the people were super thankful. The only complaint that they had was that we couldn’t do their other eye,” she said.

A lack of sunglasses and an intense amount of sun exposure has made cataracts epidemic across Africa and as Kolbenson explains, the cataract issue is twofold and it’s not just the individual who is affected.

“If somebody in the family can’t see it’s the kids that have to take care of them. So these kids that are supposed to be going to school are now at home and leading their mom or dad or grandma or grandpa around…so they don’t get any formal education.”

Kolbenson’s trip was sponsored by Rotary and was part of Dr. Jim Guzek’s organization Gift of Giving Sight.

Guzek has been conducting trips such as this one for four or five years and an important part of his training is sustainability.

“He goes down there to train cataract surgeons that are willing to stay in these remote regions of Africa that don’t have any eye care,” Kolbenson said.

Guzek trained a man named Daniel in cataract surgeries on this trip, with the pair conducting about five or six per day as part of the education. Daniel had previously completed a three year eye nursing program but had no training with regards to surgery. A previous Guzek trainee, Dr. Samuel, conducted the majority of the surgeries across the five days.

This was also not Kolbenson’s first trip of this sort, having travelled to Jamaica in the past to give patients care that they would otherwise have no chance of receiving. Needless to say, it’s an intensely rewarding experience.

“It’s a nice refresh. You get kind of spoiled and into your own routine and sometimes you just need to push yourself out of the box,” she said.

“I’ve got a couple of people from the optometry community that I’ve already told about it that would be interested in doing it…once you get somebody to go once then they usually get hooked.”