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Dr Helena Ndume 'miracle doctor' restoring eyesight.

We can't call ourselves a progressive nation if we still have people going blind from cataracts!"

That's the view of dynamic, no-nonsense eye specialist, Dr Helena Ndume, who has become a household name in Namibia for the work she does in restoring sight to thousands of Namibia's aged, blinded by cataracts.

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Sight restoration--most commonly associated with the miracles performed by Jesus in the Bible--is part of Dr. Ndume's daily routine. And to the many that she treats and inspires every day, she's seen as a 'miracle doctor'. In fact, this year alone, her eye clinics in Oshakati, Katima Mulilo, Engela, Gobabis and at Onandjokwe, which bring in doctors as volunteers from all over the world to work with her, have given back sight to over one thousand people.

Training in exile

The elegantly stylish Dr. Ndume, who hails from Tsumeb but went into exile at the age of 15, was dissuaded from becoming a fashion designer after high school in exile in the Gambia, by the likes of Nahas Angula, then a principal of a camp school, now Prime Minister; Dr. Libertine Amadhila, then a medical doctor in the camps, now Deputy PM, and Helmut Angula, then Ndume's science teacher who is now Minister of Works and Transport. They encouraged her to pursue studies in medicine, and looking back, she only has thanks for what she calls these "guiding angels".

And perhaps we should thank them too, because without Dr Ndume, it's likely that the more than ten thousand people, whose sight she has restored through the eye clinics she started twelve years ago, might still have been blind.

Dr Ndume studied medicine at the University of Leipzig in Germany, and urged on by Dr. Amadhila, returned to the University to specialise in ophthalmology after completing her medical internship at the Katutura Hospital in 1990/1. Upon completion of her ophthalmology studies she also spent six months in India, where she learnt about and treated thousands of people suffering from tropical diseases found mostly in the developing world. Today, she is one of only six of Namibia's ophthalmologists.

Making 'miracles' happen

Dr Ndume is best known for her award-winning eye clinics, where, with the assistance of doctors from across the world who volunteer their time to join her on her 'miracle missions', she restores sight to thousands of people who have been blinded by cataracts. And indeed, one has to wonder what it must feel like for one of her elderly patients to be able to see again after years in 'darkness'. For Dr Ndume, it's these "really amazing" reactions she gets from her patients that inspire her to continue in her work.

"Some start singing and dancing, jumping, some start crying, and some start talking about their pension money that they will now be able to see," she says. And with the constant reports of abuse of the elderly and the N$450 grant they receive, we can only guess what it must mean to them to be able to have a bit more control over the little that they have.

While organising an eye clinic can be a lengthy process--one that Dr Ndume praises ophthalmic medical assistant, Flashman Anyolo, for having carried out so effectively since the clinics started in Rundu in 1997-she says that the possibility of people regaining their sight makes it worth all the trouble. "The process can become frustrating and sometimes you just want to give up, but then you think of that old person sitting in the village, unable to see although their sight can be restored. You think of the one eating fish, and having to de-bone it without seeing what they are doing. And you think of the elderly who can finally see their grandchildren again after years without sight."

A day in the life ...

Watching her emerge from the operating theatre, and then interact and work with a number of other patients and staff, made it clear to me in the space of an hour that a day in the life of Dr Helena Ndume is no walk in the park. In fact, there's no such thing as a 'typical day' for her--a day could involve anything from working at the eye clinics to carrying out surgical procedures, doing ward rounds to see patients who have been admitted, or performing smaller operations such as laser surgeries.

But what gets Dr Ndume worked up is seeing patients go blind when their loss of sight could have been avoided. The eye problems she most often encounters include glaucoma, allergic conjunctivitis and cataracts. If presented early on, glaucoma and some types of allergic conjunctivitis can be managed. Cataracts on the other hand are mainly caused by aging, and can be treated by taking out the lens in the eye and replacing it with an artificial lens, usually up to five years after the onset of blindness. That's what she and her team of medical assistants and volunteer ophthalmologists from abroad do at the eye clinics.

The emergence of new diseases

Dr Ndume says that eye diseases caused by diabetes are now becoming a regular occurrence in Namibia, especially among the growing middle class whose dietary habits are changing. "There is a serious need to create awareness amongst the population about preventable and non-preventable eye diseases," she adds, lamenting the case of a young girl patient she has just seen, who has already lost most of the vision in her left eye to preventable allergic conjunctivitis.

"Now we really have to try to save the other eye. That's one case where awareness of preventable blindness could have helped--if the child had been brought in early, it could have been prevented. We also need to open more eye clinics in the regions, and to train more ophthalmic medical assistants. And we need many more facilities, machines and equipment," she adds, praising government and the clinics' sponsors for their support, yet making it clear that much remains to be done.

'Stop the violence'

Dr Ndume has an additional priority in her work, with a strong message specifically for the youth.

"Young people should know to stay away from alcohol, because the violence that can come of it is terrible," she advises. She is herself the mother of a young man. She adds, "I wish the breweries could put alcohol in plastic bottles or cans, because of the damage that young men are doing to each other with these glass bottles. There are so many patients whose eyes we've had to remove because of drunken fights."

Making a difference

There's no doubt that Dr Ndume's work as an ophthalmologist has far-reaching national and international impact. In fact, just recently, she received the Humanitarian Award from the Namibia Red Cross Society for her work. She humbly attributes the award to the work of her colleagues, the hardworking and well-organised assistants, the nurses and hospitals, the sponsors for the clinics and all those involved in the prevention of blindness, as well as to her friends and family.

But behind the restored sight of many thousands of Namibia's elderly, and an inspiration for many young Namibians, is Dr Helena Ndume the ophthalmologist, educationalist, mother, wife, motivator, and 'miracle doctor'.

This story was originally published as an extensive interview in The Namibian, 7 October 2009.
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Title Annotation:PROFILE
Author:Shejavali, Nangula
Publication:Sister Namibia
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:6NAMI
Date:Dec 1, 2009
Words:1216
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