By Sgt. Terysa M. King, U.S. Army Africa Public AffairsFebruary 14, 2012
ZANZIBAR, Tanzania (Feb. 14, 2012) -- Only a few people have the opportunity to visit Africa. Even fewer have the opportunity to visit Africa to give sight to the blind, creating a small footprint with an enormous payoff.
In support of U.S. Army Africa's first Medical Readiness and Training Exercise of the year, known as MEDRETE 12-1, U.S. medical personnel traveled to Zanzibar, Tanzania, Jan. 30 through Feb. 10, to perform a suture-less cataract surgical technique to improve military relationships with host medical providers and provide medical treatment to local citizens.
Medical personnel that participated in the event included military specialists and civilians who came from the Womack Army Medical Center in Fort Bragg, N.C., the Madigan Army Medical Center in Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., the Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson Hospital, Alaska, and Caserma Ederle in Vicenza, Italy.
Col. Darrel K. Carlton, the officer in charge of MEDRETE 12-1, said the mission is a life changing experience for the people of Zanzibar.
"I always get a great deal of satisfaction knowing that the vast majority of people we come in contact with, we're able to improve the quality of their lives," Carlton said.
Of the 2,000 patients screened, approximately 150 were selected for surgery. Patients who qualified for cataract surgery showed-up to their scheduled appointment, and within 24 hours they are able to see clearly for the first time in years.
The surgical technique, known as Extracapsular Cataract Extraction, is low tech, inexpensive and takes only 20 minutes for a person blinded by cataracts to regain their eyesight.
Kevin Czarkowski, U.S. Army Africa chief of exercises and the command and control officer-in-charge, said the mission is a great opportunity for the United States and the host nation to work side by side to build a lasting relationship.
"The collaboration between the U.S. medical team, the Ministry of Health officials from Zanzibar and the Tanzania People's Defense Force and the ability to get these three organizations together is remarkable," Czarkowski said.
Mohammed Ameir Bonda, a retired colonel of the TPDF, said he was grateful for the chance to restore his eyesight.
"My vision now is not good, it's not clear. For a long time I struggled [with] my eyes. I'm very happy for this opportunity," Bonda said before his surgery. After his operation, Bonda was all smiles, asking to see his brother.
Carlton said restoring eyesight to the blind has great benefits for the patients.
"It is very difficult to be a fully contributing member of society if you are blind, especially in these poorer countries. People without it are not able to find employment. They not only become a burden to themselves, but to their immediate family and the surrounding community. Curing blindness, or curing someone's vision, in an austere setting like this has many secondary effects, not just to the person who is being assisted but to their entire families," Carlton said.
Czarkowski said this mission not only helps people see, but it enhances Zanzibar's treatment capabilities.
"The key is Africans solving African problems. We come here with a small team and we stand next to the Ministry of Health officials and their doctors, building their capacity. At the end, now they [the Ministry of Health] have the capability and the capacity to do this themselves," Czarkowski said.
Along with helping build Zanzibar's ophthalmology capacities, Carlton said he enjoyed the learning experience.
"I enjoy the satisfaction of knowing that we've helped people see. I enjoy working with other militaries and learning as much about their culture and their way of doing business. It's truly a two-way street. We don't come here and run the show, we're working with them," Carlton said.
MEDRETE is a regularly scheduled U.S. Army Africa exercise where teams of U.S. military medical specialists travel to select areas in Africa. Future MEDRETE exercises are scheduled to take place in Burkina Faso and Mauritania.