‘Sharing the light, restoring vision’

Published 8:27 pm Monday, May 17, 2010

Roberts said he often sees glasses like these. “It is amazing what these people do to be able to see.” He is so fascinated, that he has begun a collection. “I ask them if I can help them to see again, if I can have the glasses,” he said.

He was an Andalusia Middle School student at the time he first began to explore the electromagnetic spectrum.
“I was fascinated that bees and other animals can see different parts of the light spectrum that we can’t,” he told the Andalusia Lions Club this week.
Now an ophthalmologist working as a medical missionary in Western Kenya, Dr. Ben Roberts is still fascinated with light.
“Professionally, all I do is manipulate light,” he said.
He explained that the eye needs to get light from the cornea to the retina so that the optic nerve can receive information and transmit it to the brain.
“We treat a lot of diseases that affect that,” he said.
“Our mission as a family and at Tenwek Hospital, is sharing the light,” he said.
Tenwek Hospital is one of the largest mission hospitals in Africa, providing primary health care to about a million people in the region.
In the eye unit, he said, he works with a team of 12 to 15 people. During most of his work since affiliating with Tenwek in 2006, he said, he was the only ophthalmologist on staff. Recently,  he was joined by a second specialist who is committed to at least two years at Tenwek.
“We seek to give each patient the best care possible,” he said.
The most common problem he treats is cataracts. His patients are stoic, he said, and endure the surgery with only a local block. He and his family are stateside for a year and he’ll be working in Birmingham.
“My patients here aren’t as stoic as my Kenyan patients,” he said. “I hope I have a lot of grace.”
The eye unit in Kenya has 20 beds, 10 in the female ward and 10 in the male ward. Often, as they recover from eye surgery, his patients rest two-to-a-bed, he said.
“They don’t seem to complain,” he said. “And they can get five people in two beds if they push them together.”
Such arrangements also are common in other parts of the hospital, he said.
Staff members of the eye unit often go into the villages and do community-based work, he said, and often do missions to other countries.
Using a slide show as a backdrop, Roberts shared story after story of men and women who came to Tenwek with little or no vision and left able to lead a better life.
There was the man who was the spearmaster of his tribe.
“It is his job to teach the culture and religion of his tribe to the next generation,” Roberts said. The tribe believes that the spearmaster is neither born, nor dies.
When the spearmaster feels he is no longer useful, traditionally he tells fellow tribesmen that his time has come, and is basically buried alive, Roberts said.
After surgery, the spearmaster’s sight was restored.
When surgery corrected the vision of a widow who was unable to work or care for her children because of her blindness, the whole community celebrated, he said, because vision meant the woman could take care of her own.
“When we take those patches off, they are very excited,” he said of his patients. “Some of them start dancing.”
All in all, the work is very gratifying, Roberts said.
“We give up a lot to be there,” he said. “But we are very gratified by what we do.”