Giving sight to the blind

With over 46 years in AIM and 30 years of that specialising in eye surgery, Dr Keith Waddell is regarded as one of the world’s foremost experts in the field, and it all started with him and an assistant hitching rides around Uganda.

A new school

Not long before speaking to The African Connection, AIM’s Dr Keith Waddell had attended the official opening of the Dr Keith Waddell Community Education Centre, Uganda; a testimony to the impact the eye surgeon has had, not only in the country, but in the medical community worldwide.

“…my main assistant who hands me the instruments when I’m operating, I first met as a blind boy about 18 years ago. He was one of the very first children we did lens implants on for cataracts…”

The school educates 250 children as well as providing a lunch consisting of a chapatti or sugary maize porridge, which, for many of them, will be their only meal of the day. Providing a lunch may seem insignificant, but, according to Dr Waddell, it now means the children have the energy to focus on their studies, whereas before they became distracted scavenging for ground nuts because of their hunger.

An assistant and a suitcase

While he says he is ‘thrilled’ to be honoured by the school, Dr Waddell is not a man to be tied down to one thing; his eye surgery still takes top priority. But how he came to develop it was a day-to-day experience: “When, at the end of the Idi Amin era, I went back to train in eye work, there was really no eye service in Uganda at all. So we started as a mobile team: me, one assistant and one suitcase on the back of lorries, travelling around, sensitising people to what can be done and how blind people can see again. So, over the last 30 years that has developed into a very well organised eye service, and it started with training at the lowest level: training village health workers to try and get people with a visual impairment to a worker, then training the lowest level of worker; building up until the present time in our main training hospital, Ruhara, where we are actually training post-graduate specialist eye doctors.”

Spreading healthcare

For Dr Waddell, he is amazed to see the impact that providing education to children can have on their lives, most notably those from his ‘Disadvantaged Youngsters’ project. It has been running for 40 years with the aim of educating orphans, children with disabilities and those from poorer families. He said: “A large number of those, as they come up, decide to do health work and train as clinical officers and nurses; my entire team at the moment is made up of boys that started as disadvantaged youngsters. In fact, my main assistant who hands me the instruments when I’m operating, I first met as a blind boy about 18 years ago. He was one of the very first children we did lens implants on for cataracts when it was still quite a new thing, even in Western countries.”

givingSightKids Children welcome Dr Waddell to the opening of the school named in his honour

Honours

Dr Waddell’s work has not gone unnoticed by the secular world. He has received honours from Her Majesty the Queen, although he added a footnote: “I’m not sure a missionary should have it.” However, the one honour that he was grateful to receive was that of Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Ophthalmologists in 2007. He said: “I think the thing that thrilled me about this was that there’s a very limited number of Honorary Fellows; they have just a few. Most of them are the big retired Profs from the big medical schools in Britain, and with little me from the jungle. Now, the thing that thrilled me about that is, that the great big medical world is at last realising that the two-thirds world is this huge unmet need and that it’s our responsibility here in the Western world to take this into account. And I have the honour to represent this interest between the developed world of the ‘haves’ and this huge, huge world of the ‘have nots’, with these huge, huge opportunities. “Just take cataracts, the figure is something like 20 million people in the world blind with cataracts, and in 10 minutes we, in a remote place, can give them normal sight. It is just a scandal in a sense that this is the case. Fortunately the scandal is being addressed. And, as I say, just because of the timing when I came in 30 years ago to the eye work, I happened to be one of the pioneers of this great movement to attack avoidable blindness. It’s a worldwide project, and we happened to be in on the ground floor; in fact I might even say we were even before the ground floor. We started before Geneva thought about it.”

givingSightFlying Dr Waddell often flies to neighbouring countries to work

Medical ‘nextperts’

When asked about how he amalgamated his Christian witness with his work, Dr Waddell admitted that he initially struggled with it: “I’m not sure I clearly understood what it involved being a medical missionary, and I think I have to say that the experience, certainly in the first years, was very hard. What I hadn’t reckoned with was that when you go to Africa as a health worker you are surrounded by a sea of suffering, and although nobody’s indispensible, the truth is very often it was me, or us, or nothing. And so you’re faced, day after day, with people who are suffering, people who are blind looking to you to help them and probably nobody else. But there’s far too much, and this has been the great burden all the time. The notion that you go as a preaching doctor very often has not worked out. “One of my Ugandan colleagues said, ‘We’re called medical experts; the truth is we’re medical nextperts. “Next patient; next patient; next patient,” all day long.’ The queue’s out of sight. And yet, if you went away and didn’t finish the queue, the people would be very hurt as well. And one of the things they actually value in us is that we are nextperts. We will go at speed all day long and into the night to make sure that nobody is turned away unattended. Paradoxically, what seems to us as our failure as missionaries is often seen by the community greatly to our credit.” He also looked to the example of how Jesus often took care of people’s physical needs – seeing their cries for humanitarian help – before their spiritual. Dr Waddell noted that while he is personally supported through AIM, his work would not be possible without funding from CBM as well as from Cancer Research UK, to which he has been providing eye cancer research for the past 10 years.

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