Angola, February 2019.
A team made up of three ophthalmologists, two anaesthetists, three nurses and three development workers leave Barcelona for Angola with a common goal: to contribute a small grain of sand to the eradication of the most frequent global cause of avoidable blindness.
There the team is expanded with the staff belonging to Oshen who on this occasion sponsored this expedition, at least 10 people are essential in the daily work. We have a week ahead of us in a country full of contrasts. On the one hand, Luanda, considered the most expensive capital in the world, and on the other hand one of the areas with the least ophthalmologists in the world… barely 15 ophthalmologists to treat 44,000 patients with vision problems last year, almost a third of whom had cataracts. Although it is impossible to cover the population affected by cataracts, on this occasion we were prepared with a double team: two surgeons and all the double apparatus to be able to cover a larger population in the 10 days we could go. Four months ago Elena Barraquer Foundation was already in Angola, the initial intention was to return the following year but the situation there Elena was so dramatic that the expedition was brought forward and also proposed to operate twice as many patients. And so it was, we operated on 454 cataracts.
It is not the first time that I accompany Elena Barraquer in her tireless purpose of eradicating cataracts in Africa, however, the emotions I have experienced this time have been quite different. The first impression I have is that none of the patients gathered there (and they come by the hundreds) has ever been seen by any ophthalmologist, optometrist or ophthalmological technician, with which a large number of patients did not have cataracts, to face so many blind people, who come with their hopes in you and have to tell them that unfortunately they do not have cataracts, but that the cause of their blindness is another as glaucoma (also very common in Africa), corneal scars, leukomas, retinal detachments, trachoma etc.. was frankly hard for me. More than 50% of the patients visited did not have cataracts, but other pathologies that cannot be solved. For me, this was radically different from other expeditions, in which patients were diagnosed with cataracts. The second thing that also surprised me was the large number of children we visited and operated on. Congenital and traumatic cataracts, we were also surprised because they were operated with local anaesthesia and without sedation, which is usually complicated in children. However, their eagerness to fight and their desire to recover their vision made almost everyone behave very well, despite the fact that on occasion Catalina, one of our volunteers, had to lie on them to reassure them, but in general all of them, the 30 that we operated on, were very brave.
All that remains is for me to talk about the wonderful team with whom I shared this experience from the first to the last. Dr. Gerardo Valvecchia, always cheerful, always positive, without fear of anything. Complicated cataracts, frankly complicated, don’t make him any smaller. He travelled more than 8,000 km with his daughter Catalina, a medical student, who came as a development worker, worthy successor to her father. Susi Brabermoin, an instrumentalist nurse with a heart of gold and an astonishing capacity for work, tireless and always happy. Our two anaesthetists: Belén Poyatos, already in her second expedition, infinite patience with the children, and with the not so children. Hard work does not frighten her. In her hands there was no patient who moved during the intervention. And Lourdes Blanco, in her first experience with the Foundation, but not her first experience in cooperation. Always ready to help. They both made a perfect tandem that worked like a Swiss clock, their fight with the biometer brought them head first, but it didn’t scare them. Our development workers: Elena Ostos, instrumentalist nurse who on this occasion came to do fieldwork, amply prepared for another time to take charge of the instrumentation, always marvellous. And the team formed by two publicists, Raquel and Esther, full of ideas, vitality and joy. Learning Portuguese at a forced pace, her explanations for the postoperative period were key so that the operated patients did not have complications. It was a great team formed by both of them. Raquel is already a veteran, this is her fourth expedition. For Esther the first one and I hope it will not be the last one, both showed efficacy, efficiency and joy in abundance. And I leave for the end to Natalia Mingorance, instrumentalist who accompanies Elena on virtually all expeditions, always aware of everything. Without her this challenge would not have been possible. Absolute control of the important things and of the small details that make things flow and that each one occupies his or her own space. At all times dedicated to her work and helping all of us to move forward.
Elena, alma mater of the Foundation. Little else can I say that I have not said a thousand times, me with her at the end of the world. If there is one person who is capable of inspiring it is her. I don’t believe in all my life to have known a person like her, her kindness is infinite. Even now to see her cry and get excited when she uncovers a patient and gets to see, leaves me speechless. She cries with them of real emotion. After hundreds of operated patients that feeling remains intact. In addition, her capacity for work is inexhaustible. There are people who when you cross them in life want to stay forever at her side, that is Elena, exceptional surgeon with an exceptional heart, happy and happy. She moves mountains! She has built this Foundation together with Teté Ferreiro. She is the motor that make the foudnation run , always aware of everything, it is absolutely incredible how she can be 6,000 km away helping us in any unforeseen, solving any problem that arises. She is, even if you don’t see her, she is in everything and with everyone.
Finally, a special mention to the whole Oshen team. Andrea and Carlos Malet a pleasure to meet people like that on the road, and all the staff who helped us to make this experience possible.
From this expedition what I take is to find people in life that you wish you could stay close to. Thank you Elena Barraquer Foundation for allowing me to participate again.
Dra. Julia Sempere