It was just another day for eye surgeon, Dr Helen Roberts (MBE FRCOphth), but her days are not quite like anyone else's. It takes her around 15 minutes to restore sight to a person blinded by cataracts, and she might treat up to 20 patients in a day. On this particular day, however, Helen's routine was interrupted by the arrival of a large cake which her staﬀ had secretly had baked for her in celebration of the fact that it has been 25 years since Helen decided to dedicate her life to Kenya. And during that time Kwale Eye Centre has seen over 500,000 people and carried out over 35,000 sight restoring eye operations.
That's quite an achievement, and Helen celebrated it by sharing the cake with her staﬀ and all the patients in her clinic that day.
Helen's clinic, Kwale Eye Centre (KEC) lies just inland from Mombasa's famous Diani Beach. And, while dinner at one of Diani's glossy hotels will cost about the same as making a blind man see, most of the local people are so poor they can't even scrape together the money for the subsidised fees: so they pay with a chicken, a few mangoes; or a smile.
KEC never turn a patient away. Which is probably just as well when you consider the following; Kenya's rate of blindness is ten times that of the Western world; of the world's 45 million blind people 90% live in the developing world and of the millions of Kenyans who go blind, 80% need never have done so. Blindness, tragically, is largely preventable.
The magic of having one's sight restored in 15 minutes, which is all the time it takes to 'do' a cataract, aﬀects people diﬀerently. Helen tells the story of one old man who had been blind for most of his life. Persuaded by the community worker to come into the clinic, he had his operation, walked out into the carpark, threw away his white stick, summarily dismissed the small boy who had led him around, and danced oﬀ down the road. Another man who had been blind for 15 years returned to his village and shrieked with laughter over how much his neighbours had aged. Best of all is the tale of the community worker who came across a blind man up a tree, from which a noose dangled. He was sobbing in despair; his life seemed to be worthless. The community worker lured him down from the tree, onto the back of his motorbike, and in to the clinic. The next time he saw the man, he was up a tree again: laughing, singing and cutting down coconuts.