Working in Malawi, Charlotte faces day-to-day challenges with traditional healers, mistrust of hospitals and a lack of medication and equipment; but the honour of giving the blind back their sight makes it worth it.
When I finished school I was inspired to become a nurse because I admired the nurses I saw all clean and neat in their uniforms, with their caps on their heads, and because I wanted to help people who were sick.
I’ve been working at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Blantyre, Malawi, since 1967 - almost 30 years!
I started to work in the eye department a year after qualifying and I did my training in ophthalmology by 1969.
At that time all the eye specialists were from Israel. The first Malawian eye surgeon, Professor Moses Chirambo, went to Israel to train and on returning to Malawi identified a desperate need for an eye care centre. In conjunction with the Lilongwe Lions he set up the centre at the hospital and the Royal Commonwealth Society for the Blind (now known as Sightsavers) started sponsoring the training and running of the eye department.
“We were the pioneers”
We were the pioneers; all the eye care services were done in Blantyre for the whole country.
There has been drastic change since I started. New inventions and a move to new ways of operating and working. For example, cataract surgery used to use intracapsular extraction then implantation of intraocular lens was introduced.
You have to adapt.
I’m trained to assist in theatre, do minor surgeries, take information from patients, carry out screening, prescribe medicine or treatment, and give nursing care in the ward.
I work in all areas of the hospital: in the wards, theatre and outpatients. At the moment I’m in the wards, doing daily eye dressings.
Because there are not enough people trained in eye care, the doctors and nurses also travel to district hospitals to do outreach surgeries there. We have to travel for a long time; it can take up to four hours to go to the end of Malawi. On long journeys we leave the day before, spend the night there, operate, and come back.
The local ophthalmic clinicians also bring people to the district hospital from the villages.
“In Malawi, there’s a lot of mistrust of hospitals, so patients are often frightened”
They screen them, examine them for diagnosis and decide what to do the night before we operate. The patients need to be in the hospital the day before so they can familiarise themselves with the place – if they are blind they have the fear of the unknown and need to get used to their surroundings, so we have to counsel them and make them feel comfortable.
In Malawi, there’s a lot of mistrust of hospitals, so patients are often frightened.
Some people prefer to use traditional medicines,some of which can cause harm. Traditional healers will give people medicine that make them go blind.
“Traditional healers will give people medicine that make them go blind”
Guardians or villagers tell patients:
“Don’t go to the hospital, they’ll take your spirit”
“You will go to sleep and die on the table”
“They will remove your eye from your body, wash it and put it back”
Sometimes we have to give general anaesthetic, that’s what scares people. So we have to counsel them to tell them exactly what will happen.
But I love my job.
“Some patients dance and thank God for our help”
I feel great and honoured, especially when we work with blind patients. After the operation blind people usually appreciate the work that you do, you feel you are doing something for the nation.
Sightsavers sponsors the outreach, helping cataract patients get to the hospital and the operations. Most of these patients are blind for a long time; they don’t have the money to come to the hospital so when we go to outreach and they are collected, they do appreciate it.
Some patients dance and thank God for our help. You can have someone being blind for five years then gaining their sight, so they feel great and appreciate the work that you do.
I enjoy treating patients: when they go home happy with their sight they can do some work to help the family. If a lady is blind with small children, she can’t take care of them or the house independantly, and will struggle to find food to support her family. But she can do it by herself with sight. It gives me pride that I’ve helped the nation this way.
But there are a lot of challenges; a shortage of drugs and personnel. Sometimes if we don’t have medicine, we advise the patients to go and buy it - but they can’t always afford it - or we try to provide something that will be a help.
Most of the drugs and the lenses we use are bought by Sightsavers donations. We rely on them. It’s a big help because the government can’t afford all the things we need as they have a lot of priorities, such as HIV.
Find out more about the work of nurses like Charlotte in Malawi:
Speak to the nurses working with Sightsavers
The nurses from Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital will be joining us for a live Twitter chat on 8th October at 12pm. You can ask any questions you have for them before the chat by emailing them to firstname.lastname@example.org, or ask them live during the chat.
To join in, search for #NTtwitchat on twitter and use this hashtag in all your tweets.
See Sightsavers’ work live
Sightsavers #AMillionMiracles appeal is aiming to raise enough money for a million sight-restoring operations.
You can see the team in action; on Wednesday 8 October at 1.30pm, a cataract operation will be broadcast live from Malawi on Google+ and at www.millionmiracles.org. The next day, you’ll be able to see the moment the patient, Winesi’s, bandages are removed. If all goes well, witness the moment when he sees his 18-month-old grandson for the first time.