Beyond the blur

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He could only distinguish light from dark

Seventeen-year-old Frank was raised in a house of hardworking men. His mother left when he was young, and his father and brothers spent their days fetching wood on the river. But Frank couldn’t join his brothers. In fact, he couldn’t even cross the street by himself, and he hadn’t tried to since he left school eleven years ago.

Frank was blind from cataracts that formed when he was only a little boy — something that often happens when children don’t receive the nourishment they need in their developmental years. ‘I cannot remember life before my blindness,’ Frank confessed as he tried to recall the world around him.

Despite describing himself as a sad person, his family cherishes the memories of the bright, lively little boy who used to joke and make people laugh. But even these memories are tarnished by the sadness of watching him reluctantly leave school, lose his sense of identity, and abandon his dreams of becoming a mechanic.

‘He was the brightest in his class, an outgoing and boisterous child,’ said his older brother, Roland.

Frank’s cataracts limited his independence more and more each year. ‘When I was sent home from school, I felt so small. I could only go back when my sight had improved, but I couldn’t get surgery,’ said Frank.

Left untreated, cataracts in children can affect the success of any future surgery. If they form during key stages of growth, the part of the brain that works in conjunction with sight does not develop. This is yet another reason why Mercy Ships works to reach people like Frank — people who could not access the time-sensitive surgery they needed as children — as soon as possible.

‘The fact is, that even though pediatric eye disease is less common than adult eye disease, it results in as many years of disability,’ said volunteer Ophthalmic Surgeon Dr Glenn Strauss. ‘Blindness in children under five years old has a 50% mortality rate due to injury and neglect or abandonment.’

He needed a guide everywhere he went

Frank sat alone day in and day out, listening to the empty sounds of the television. But one day, he heard something that caught his attention — an advertisement for Mercy Ships. After hearing about the hospital ship, Frank’s family immediately took him to register as a patient. His hunger for independence was reborn.

‘Frank stood out to me at screening and stayed on my mind all day,’ said Amber Schimd, a volunteer eye screening nurse. ‘It made me think, ‘What would it be like to be a teenager and blind?’ He doesn’t even know what he looks like! What about his future? His education? I can’t imagine what it must be like.’

With no medical history or notes, the eye team was unable to fully predict the outcome or success of his operation. Following his surgery, the medical team quickly noticed that, although there was an improvement in his sight, it was not as significant as they’d all hoped. ‘We realised it was most likely (the case) that his cataracts had been there longer than we thought,’ said Dr Strauss. ‘Frank was one survivor who could have had his vision fully restored if we had reached him even five years sooner.’

But Frank slowly began recognizing text on paper and faces in pictures, which before were just a blur of light and dark. This was a seemingly minor improvement, but it held a major impact for Frank’s independence. When you’ve lived most of your life afraid to cross the street, filled with a sense of isolation and dependence, the ability to see anything at all is miraculous.

‘Thanks to Mercy Ships, my sight is better than before, and I thank them for that,’ said Frank. ‘Now, I can cross the street alone, and my dream is to go further — to places I have never been before.’

Once alone in his world of darkness, Frank now has opportunities he never thought would be possible.

‘I think this is a great picture of the independence that this cataract surgery has brought for him,’ said Dr Strauss. ‘What a change in his life! I think if he has the determination and the courage to be a mechanic, as he says, I bet he can do it.

Frank after his surgery