Ontario-based ophthalmologist Dr. Umut Duygu Uzunel brings hope with her every time she arrives in Africa. Her volunteer work on the continent is long and hard, but fulfilling.
According to estimates, there are about seven million blind people in Africa and 10 million cataract patients needing eye surgery for cataracts or other ocular ailments.
Uzunel, whose first name translates to Hope in Turkish, is one who has been addressing the continent’s critical need for eye care. She immigrated to Canada from Turkey in 2017 and has been taking her ophthalmology skills to Africa since 2014 as a volunteer.
In Africa, she said, the doctors are few and the “case numbers are very high.”
Uzunel, who has been to Somalia, Senegal, Uganda and Mali, said because of the sun’s direct rays in that part of the world, cataracts are “more common and complicated.”
She would use her vacation time to travel to Africa to volunteer, she said, often contacting pharmaceutical companies and other firms to donate health supplies she could bring with her in her luggage.
“I went to the poorest villages in the countries,” she said. “Their monthly incomes were a maximum of $30 while cataract surgery was $150. So, they were not able to have an eye operation. But an operation that takes me 15 minutes might change their perspective to the world.”
Uzunel would start surgeries at 6 a.m. and work until almost midnight, examining about 200 to 300 patients and operating on approximately 40 to 50 patients every day. She estimates she has examined 20,000 patients and performed more than 3,000 operations in Africa.
The local health team would hire a bus to bring patients who needed treatment to her from as far as 400 kilometres away.
She said her team operated on them and then sent them back to their village. Sometimes, she would see hundreds of patients on the day she was due to leave Africa to return to Canada.
“My friends were packing up my luggage while I was examining patients,” Uzunel said.
She was in Uganda in January and hoped to return in April, but COVID-19 interrupted her vital humanitarian work.
Uzunel has in the meantime been studying naturopathic medicine in Toronto while waiting for the pandemic to be subdued by vaccines, in hopes of someday building a university in an African country to train local naturopaths.
“It is very hard to supply medicine, but they have rich natural sources,” she said. “We can teach them how to utilize and make medicine.”
What she wants for her African patients is hope, which is what her first name translates to from Turkish, Uzunel said.