“I used to say, ‘if you give someone fish to eat, you feed him for a day. If you teach him to fish, you feed him for his whole life. But if you teach people how to teach other people, then you feed a village for a whole generation.’” – Dr. Wodomé
In July, Mercy Ships video producer Caleb and myself (brand editor) boarded a plane to Lomé, Togo with a few suitcases worth of camera equipment in tow. We were headed to meet Dr. Abram Wodomé, a former trainee and current partner of Mercy Ships. After completing his ophthalmic surgical training on the Africa Mercy a decade ago, Dr. Wodomé caught the passion for non-profit work. He opened his own clinic, where he continues to perform free cataract surgeries and train other local surgeons. We were going to Togo to share his story.
Thirty-odd hours later, we arrived late on a Saturday evening. To our surprise, when we walk out the doors of the airport into the muggy heat, Dr. Wodomé is there to greet us. We’d never met, nor had we asked him to pick us up, but the Mercy Ships connection is all it takes. We are immediately treated like family.
The next day begins with a detailed tour of Dr. Wodomé’s clinic: Clinique Ophtalmologique Lumière Divine. The clinic includes comfortable waiting rooms, a two-bed operating theater, and several pre- and post-op examination rooms. A recent addition to the clinic is housing where ophthalmic trainees can stay during their three-month mentoring period.
It’s clear that Dr. Wodomé is extremely passionate about his work. His entire face lights up when he talks about the way surgery changes a person’s life.
As the country’s leading cataract surgeon, he provides thousands of surgeries every year to visually impaired patients. Many of these surgeries are performed completely free of charge. Any funds raised by patients who choose to pay immediately go toward funding the charitable cases.
Dr. Wodomé goes far out of his way to make free surgeries happen. His team runs door-to-door campaigns in remote regions of the country and organizes rural patients’ transportation to Lomé.
Upcountry Patient Screening
During our first week, we accompanied the clinic team to a northern village for a screening day. The team expertly assesses a group of about 20 patients in one of the village centers. Dr. Harry – who was recently trained by Dr. Wodomé and now works at the clinic – evaluates each person’s vision to determine whether they are a viable candidate for surgery. Within an hour, the screening is wrapped and we’re en route to the next site: an empty school building. Rows of desks are pushed to the side to make way for patients, typically elderly men and women led in by younger relatives.
Here we meet 70-year-old Hounsigbo. She’s been completely blinded by cataracts for over three years, so her grandson, Louis, has become her guide. Her biggest wish is to see her loved ones again. If her eyesight is restored, she says the first thing she’ll do is gather her seven grandkids around her and simply look at their faces.
It’s good news for Hounsigbo, who is scheduled for a follow-up surgical appointment. She and Louis are all smiles as the screening team pulls away.
Training Local Surgeons
Back at the clinic, all hands are on deck to prepare for a fresh week of surgeries. In the beginning of 2021, Dr. Wodomé partnered with Mercy Ships in a new way. He launched a cataract surgical training program that allows local surgeons to shadow him for three months and learn the MSICS method, a cataract surgical technique that’s ideally suited for low resource settings. His students also learn how to train others in turn, creating an exponential future impact.
During our two-week visit, the trainee in question is a young surgeon named Dr. Dalia. On a typical day, Dr. Wodomé performs a cataract surgery in under 7 minutes – we pulled out the stopwatch and timed him. He has performed more than 15,000 such surgeries during his career. During training days, however, the clock slows down. One surgery might take 40 minutes, as he meticulously guides his student’s every move.
It’s a lesson he learned the hard way. In the early days of Dr. Wodomé’s clinic, before he had access to proper training equipment, he didn’t have scopes to observe his student’s movements. Once, a student accidentally removed a patient’s entire iris instead of just the cataract, permanently blinding them. “It happened in the blink of an eye,” he told us. After Mercy Ships donated essential training equipment in 2012, the capacity of his training program has continually grown leaps and bounds.
Celebrating New Sight
After a long week of surgeries, one particular moment crystallizes Dr. Wodomé’s passion. The day after Hounsigbo’s surgery, she returns to the clinic for her post-op appointment. A nurse removes the bandage across her face, and she blinks her eyes open for the first time. A smile like a beam of light bursts across her face. The operation was a success. For the first time in a decade, she can see. Hounsigbo runs into the exam room where Dr. Wodomé is working and wraps him in a celebration hug. His smile echoes hers. Another person’s sight restored – another family changed.
When the week is over, it’s time to celebrate. To the sound of drums and singing, Dr. Wodome’s team and patients dance together, celebrating the fact that those who were once blind can now see.
The Future of Togo
Before leaving Togo, we ask Dr. Wodomé one last question. What does the future of healthcare in Africa look like? He responds, “The future of surgery for me in Africa looks very bright, because more and more people are interested in quality training. It is the basis of everything. When the training is of good quality, the surgery gives good results, and the patients are also confident about their practitioners. I think that over the next few years, Africa is promised a better future.”
Written by Rose Talbot Brumley, Mercy Ships Global Brand Editor