Special report by Brian Doolan, CEO
Cambodia: Phan was eleven when his eyes “started to go funny”. Three years later he couldn't see the blackboard at school. Sight restoring surgery means he can get an education and has hope for a better future.
"I want to get a good job and look after my mother."
Phan lives with his mother in a small village two hours drive from Phnom Penh, in Cambodia. Their home is a hut with a thatched roof and just one room.
Phan is the only child at home and as well as going to school it’s his job to care for his mother.
Phan's mother Sok Thik had a stroke 10 years ago which paralysed her left side. She can walk a little, but can’t use her left hand. She needs help to bathe, dress and cook.
“I want to get a good job and help look after my mother, and mend the roof so it doesn't leak,” said Phan. “And have more food to eat.”
But Phan was falling behind at school and his failing eyesight was also making it hard for him to help his mother and to maintain their vegetable garden and care for their chickens. “Sometimes he burns himself lighting the cooking fire,” said Sok Thik.
Their situation was grim
Fortunately, local eye health workers trained by The Fred Hollows Foundation were there to diagnose Phan. He had cataracts in both eyes, but treatment was possible.
Cataract surgery on children is a specialised skill and requires a general anaesthetic. In Cambodia, there is only one place it can be done – the Preah Ang Duong Hospital in Phnom Penh, where much of the equipment has been supplied by The Foundation.
Phan travelled to Phnom Penh with his sister – he had never been so far from home!
When Phan's eyes were tested, he could barely make out the top line of the eye testing chart. His vision was down to two metres and the little he could see was blurred.
The day of the operation came.
Phan's ophthalmologist Dr Meng, who was trained by The Foundation, made small incisions to remove the cataracts, and then carefully implanted the two intraocular lenses (IOLs). It's unusual to do both eyes at the same time, but Phan was an exception, because he lives so far away.
After the operation Dr Meng visited Phan as he lay in his bed, both eyes bandaged. “What a lovely quiet boy he is,” said Dr Meng. “He never complains.”
As Phan waited, he held his hands up to the light. He could see small amounts of light coming through the bandages. When he moved his hands, he could vaguely make out light and dark. It was a good sign.
The next morning Dr Meng removed the bandages.
His mother's eyes filled with tears
At first, Phan's face was blank. Everyone in the room was quiet, looking at Phan.
Gradually, his eyes began to get used to the light. Then he could make out shapes and finer details. Suddenly the boy laughed out loud – he could clearly see the faces of his sister and Dr Meng!
Everyone in the room was laughing and smiling too. The operation was a success.
When Phan arrived home, he ran from the front gate to greet his mother, jumping over puddles like any other boy.
His mother's eyes filled with tears.
Phan walked about looking at things that had been a blur for years – the stove he cooks on, the well where he gets their water, his vegetable garden. He stared happily at the forest in the distance.
“Now I can see well again, I can do well at school and look after my mother,” he said, before running off to jump another puddle.
As Dr Meng says, “when we help these children see, we help them to help themselves, to help their families. We help them have a better life.”
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