Following years of being in the dark, Yassuf Mahid Haji opened his eyes to a new, illuminated world. Haji blinked several times and embraced the new gift that was bestowed unto him -- the gift of sight.
The day before, Haji was seen with his arms outstretched, completely dependent on nurses to lead him to the operating room. After a 20-minute surgery, Haji was given an eye patch, 24 hours to heal and a new outlook on life.
Haji, along with 150 citizens of Zanzibar, Tanzania, traveled to the Zanzibar Military Hospital in Bububu to receive free cataract surgery in support of the Medical Readiness and Training Exercise (MEDRETE), a joint exercise to improve working relationships with Tanzanian and U.S. Army medical providers and provide medical services to citizens in need of treatment.
Col. Darrel K. Carlton, a U.S. Army ophthalmologist and officer-in-charge of the Tanzanian MEDRETE, said the mission helps the Ministry of Health reduce cataract blindness in Tanzania because the number of patients far exceeds the number of ophthalmologists.
"The Ministry of Health here has at least four to five ophthalmologists that work here. They have some of the same types of technology that we have stateside; however, they don't have enough of them," Carlton said.
According to U.S. ophthalmologists, Haji was a very special case -- he is a severe diabetic. Ultimately, Haji's diabetes accelerated the growth of his cataracts which blinded him by at the age of 30. Now, after his surgery, Haji can see up to nine feet away.
"Before the operation, I was not able to even see the perception of light, but now it has improved. Right now, I can see, I can count fingers. I am very happy," Haji said, carefully observing his surroundings after his eye patch was removed.
Dr. Fatma J. Omar, a cataract surgeon and national eye care coordinator for the Ministry of Health in Zanzibar, was extremely pleased with the progress of the surgeries, and said she is happy with the Americans helping to lighten their load and for the learning experience.
"It's a special opportunity for them [Americans] and for us as well. It's an exchanging of ideas and techniques, we learn from each other," Omar said.
The announcement of free eye care in Zanzibar was advertised on the local television and radio stations. As a result, hundreds of people lined up at the military hospital hoping to receive free medical attention.
Rajab Mohammed Hilal, an eye care technician at the Mnazi Mmoja Hospital in Zanzibar, said he screened more than 500 patients. Even though the days are long, both Omar and Hilal know the importance of this mission to the people of Zanzibar, and how much they benefit from free medical care.
"This location is very important because most of them are poor. They cannot afford to pay for surgery or for spectacles. [Those] who need operations, they get all services free of charge," Hilal said.
Omar said she feels proud to help her people, knowing the surgery not only helps the patients, but their entire family. She explains the surgery helps the rest of the family perform their daily duties properly instead of paying attention to their blind family member's needs.
"Instead of going to the farm or going to work, they [family members] will be busy taking care of blind people at home, but now they [the patients] have regained their vision, so now they [family members] can do their work," Omar said.
Headquartered in Vicenza, Italy, U.S. Army Africa is the Army Service Component Command for U. S. Africa Command. Dedicated to positive change in Africa, U.S. Army Africa enables full spectrum operations while conducting sustained security engagement with African land forces to promote security, stability, and peace. For more information about U.S. Army Africa and ongoing activities, visit www.usaraf.army.mil.