I looked out the window of our airplane as we flew in to Nairobi, Kenya, and took in the scale of the Mukuru shantytown we had chosen to work in. It only took a second to come into focus.
The ramshackle houses of Mukuru—just one of Nairobi’s shantytowns—reached out to the horizon. It was roughly the size of my home city of Indianapolis, which is astounding. Three quarters of a million people lived in this shantytown, with practically no access to eyecare. For just a week, we would try to change that.
I had been planning this medical mission with Micato Safaris for three full years, but our partnership was two decades old. The organization I coordinate—Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity—was first formed by an optometrist named Franklin Harms, and my father was its second member. In the 1970s, my dad would take small groups of optometrists to Haiti, and then I began doing the same in Honduras. But I had always wanted to go to Africa. So when a Micato representative approached me in the late 1990s about a partnership to run eyecare missions in Kenya, I leapt at the chance.
The Micato-AmericaShare Harambee Community Centre is the perfect place to host a medical mission: It’s clean; It’s pristine; It’s in the middle of the Mukuru shantytown, but secure enough to leave medical equipment overnight. We hosted our first eyecare mission there in 2000.
Volunteer travel is something any of us can do. I don’t volunteer because I’m more of a do-gooder than anyone else. I do it because I’m an organizer, and it just so happens that I have a knack for putting a group of doctors together to run a mission. It also helps to have good partners. The Micato staff have been phenomenal—organizing logistics years in advance, helping us get medical equipment through customs, directing the thousands of patients who come in for eyecare. When patients come in from the bush, not speaking a word of English, the Micato staff step up and translate from Swahili. Now, after 20 years, I’ve worked with Micato long enough that I send and receive birthday presents from their staff.
Our Thanksgiving trip in 2018 was my last mission. I’ve been doing this long enough that I’ve seen hundreds of patients burst into tears when they put on their glasses and can see. On one mission, we found a three-year-old with retinoblastoma, a cancer of the eye. Untreated, it spreads through the optic nerve and into the brain. We were able to get him treatment. He’s in his twenties now, and when I see him, he nearly knocks me down, throwing his arms around me in a giant hug. If we hadn’t been there, he wouldn’t be alive.
My favorite part of a mission is when we get off the bus on the first day. We start at 6am sharp. When we arrive, everyone disperses like ants, setting up equipment without saying a word. This is when all the years of preparation go into motion. It happens so smoothly that we’re able to start treating patients right away. This last trip, we saw 700 people on the first day. By the end of the mission, we had treated nearly 2,000.
It was supposed to be my last mission. But on the last day, when we were clearing things out, I left a few boxes of medical equipment in the Micato office. I figured they’d come in handy when I come back in another three years.
Flying over Nairobi, seeing the scale of the shantytowns can be overwhelming. It can make us feel powerless. But in just a few days, we were able to give a couple thousand patients access to eyecare. And that is pretty incredible.
Experts say that the leading cause of blindness isn’t cataracts, or any other extreme eye condition, but refractive error—near-sightedness or far-sightedness. In other words, the leading cause of blindness in the world can be cured without heavy equipment or elaborate surgery. As soon as a patient places a pair of eyeglasses on their face it only takes a second for everything to come into focus. It only takes a second to cure.