The gift of sight

The gift of sight

In November 2018, pilot Patrick Keller flew a team of Italian eye doctors who had spent a fortnight restoring sight in Madagascar.

The 45-minute flight from Ambatondrazaka saves a day’s journey by road allowing the team of Italian eye doctors from Medici Volontari Italiani two more days to treat patients.

Story and photos by Charlotte Pedersen

The weather is beautiful and Patrick chooses to stay low, as we pass small villages connected with the rest of the world by small dirt road and paths. There are many isolated villages in Madagascar.

Landing in Ambatondrazaka, we are welcomed by the leaders of the group and the Italian nuns who run the local hospital. Italian, French, English and Malagasy greetings are exchanged before we set off along the bumpy road to the hospital.

Sister Luciana is simultaneously driving and speaking on her phone. ‘That’s the railway station,’ she points out, ‘but there are no more trains coming.’ Since she arrived in Madagascar in 1972, development has only gone one way – backwards. ‘It will take a generation before we see real change here,’ she explains.  

Living and running a hospital in Madagascar is hard work. Younger nuns are taking over, but it is hard to replace the experience of Sister Luciana. The doctors have taught her to use WhatsApp for remote consultations when she needs advice. The ones she can’t help are told to come back when the doctors are making their twice-yearly visit.

At the hospital, a local doctor joins the Italian doctors in the operation room to watch the experienced doctors at work. He is training and will perform operations himself under their supervision.

The tour takes us on to the pharmacy, and the room where they make glasses. Everywhere we go we are met by smiling local staff willing to serve and help their people.

There is another local hospital, ‘but I would not go there if I where you’ Sister Luciana explains. The training of the doctors, the equipment, the treatment and the hygiene is not what it should be.

In just two weeks, the team of doctors have treated around 350 patients and performed 95 eye operations. But why, I wonder, is there such great need? One of the doctors explains that it’s because Malagasy people are hardworking, ‘but the safety around jobs like hammering of stones into smaller pieces of stones and farming, in general, is very poor, so the number of eye injuries is much higher here than at home.’

'Every time we go, I have a list of doctors that want to come – I have doctors waiting to come and join us to operate in Madagascar!' Carlo Passeggi

When I ask why he is here, for the sixth time volunteering his time, he answers: ‘I come here tired from my work in Italy, and when I go home I am fresh from the work I do here!’ The satisfaction of helping people keeps him coming back.

We have lunch with the doctors and nuns before leaving for Antananarivo. The food is fantastic and the bon ami of the Italians makes for an enjoyable meal. The nuns have prepared homemade Italian coffee and ice cream for dessert!

On the way home, the aircraft is fully packed - not with medication or medical equipment this time, but with gifts from the grateful patients. ‘One man gave us a small wooden table,’ one of the group explains. It makes a huge difference for patients to be able to see again.

The organisation Medici Volontari Italiani is run by Carlo Passeggi and Speranza Balocco. Carlo is the doctor, normally working from a private clinic in Italy. Speranza is the organiser who makes everything happen. They have visited Madagascar twice a year for the last ten years.

‘It is hard to find doctors to come with you?’ I ask. ‘No, every time we go, I have a list of doctors that want to come – I have doctors waiting to come and join us to operate in Madagascar,’ says Carlo, ‘and we only accept fully qualified and experienced doctors!’

The doctors may be back in cold Italy, but in six months they will be back once again, making a difference for the lovely people of the remote villages in Madagascar.

'The 45-minute flight saves a day’s journey by road allowing the team of Italian eye doctors from Medici Volontari Italiani two more days to treat patients.'