International Nurses Week (May 6 through 12) celebrates the contributions nurses make to society. They are vitally important in the Indian and African hospitals and eye clinics where Operation Eyesight works. In Africa, ophthalmic nurses face particular challenges:
Imagine what your eyes would feel like if you used breast milk, urine or seawater as eye drops… or washed your eyes with a solution of water and pepper plant leaves.
In many parts of rural Africa, such traditional remedies are often used to medicate eye conditions. Fortunately, the resulting eye infections – and worse conditions – can usually be treated by medical staff, including ophthalmic nurses.
“Villagers sell various concoctions as eye drops or take preparations orally, but some traditional methods have side effects that lead to infection, glaucoma or hypertension,” says Rebecca, an ophthalmic nurse at Tarkwa Municipal Hospital in Ghana.
“The hollow gourds and other containers that the traditional concoctions are put in aren’t sterile either, which leads to additional infection.”
Thanks to funding from Operation Eyesight donors, Rebecca trained as an ophthalmic nurse at Accra’s Korle-Bu Teaching Hospital in 2002, and has been working at Tarkwa since 2006. The ophthalmic unit treats an average of 45 patients per day and last year, saw more than 7,000 patients.
Along with another nursing colleague and an optometrist, Rebecca often goes on outreach journeys to eight villages within a 50-km radius around the hospital. On a typical outreach, the team sees more than 100 patients per day.
“Some people can’t manage to travel, so our outreach is necessary. There are a lot of patients in the villages that need our services. The conditions they have – cataracts, glaucoma, retinal scars, corneal ulcers, refractive error – can be treated, so that encourages other people to come to us.”
Once a doctor has confirmed the diagnosis, Rebecca and her nursing colleagues perform minor surgeries, treat patients for eye injuries (common in farming communities), and conditions such as hypertension, glaucoma, and allergic conjunctivitis. More systemic diseases such as diabetes and HIV-AIDS also affect the eyes, and have to be managed by medical personnel as well.
Besides the regular outreach programs, the ophthalmic nurses work in the maternity unit, educating mothers about how to care for their children’s eyes. They also give public talks in churches and schools, training teachers and community health workers in primary eye health care; and have periodic public radio broadcasts to educate community residents about taking care of their eyes.
“My work is very rewarding,” Rebecca says, smiling. “Because of our hard work, a lot of people have regained their sight. We’re happy because we’re making others very happy.”