Dr. Geoffrey Tabin, Co-Founder, Chairman of the Board, Himalayan Cataract Project

South Sudan has more per-capita blindness than any other country; having among the highest rates of cataract blindness, river blindness, trachoma, nutritional blindness in children, and traumatic blindness from war and landmines. Add a genetic propensity for glaucoma, lack of infrastructure and medical personnel, and I thought, “Perfect! This is where we can make a difference!”

John Dau, a former “lost boy” of South Sudan whose epic journey was featured in the Sundance award-winning documentary “God Grew Tired of Us,” built a clinic in Jonglei State. He approached us to deliver cataract care. I said, “We don’t fly in and out performing surgery but would love to develop eye health.” We’d distribute ivermectin to prevent river blindness, azithromycin to cure trachoma, and vitamin A to all children. We’d provide glasses, screen for cataracts, glaucoma and other conditions, and arrange surgical interventions. We sent two young men to Nepal for ophthalmic nurse training. We partnered with the two eye surgeons in the country.

The newly trained nurses went to villages examining patients and distributing medicines. But before our first surgical intervention, one ophthalmologist developed renal malaria. The other surgeon was shot.

Finally, we were able to fly to Juba and onto a small grass landing strip in Duk-Pauyel. The temperature was 100 degrees in the shade. Biting insects and bats competed for airspace in the sweltering operating room. The need and joy were equally overwhelming. No one had been cured of blindness here. Tears of happiness flowed from Luol Deng, a blind man who had never seen his daughter. And 250 other children, parents, and grandparents also were seeing for the first time in years.

Two weeks after we left, however, a cattle raid flared tribal tensions. Hundreds were killed, including Luol Deng and a dozen other patients. The clinic was destroyed — looted of all supplies and equipment. Instability and civil war has prevented our return.

The challenge of South Sudan taught us to select our countries of focus for 100&Change in places where we can create lasting success. We chose Ethiopia, Ghana, and Nepal based on their political climates and our local partners.

This post was first published on the MacArthur Foundation website.

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