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Optometrist paying her own way

Ella Hawthorne is travelling to Senegal to work as a volunteer aboard the Global Mercy.

Hawthorne, 28, is volunteering for six months with the charity Mercy Ships, joining an international team of 600 providing essential surgery for those without access to such care.

“Both sides of my family have stories of going above and beyond to help others and that inspired me,” she said. Her great-grandmother started a school for disabled children, her grandmother worked on a hospital ship repatriating Jews to Israel from China, and her own mother worked for Canteen and fair trade enterprise Trade Aid. ”It’s been so formative in my career. That’s why I am in this line of work, to help people every day.” That inspiration to use her own privileges in education, income and opportunity guided her from a young age, ultimately directing her into healthcare where she had her heart set on becoming a doctor. It wasn’t to be. But she says the crushing disappointment of missing out on a spot in medical school was the best thing that could have happened. It set her on the path to becoming an optometrist.

For the last five years, the Christchurch-raised woman has worked at Judd Opticians, who have supported her to take the time to go to Senegal.

A self-described extrovert, she says the best part about being an optometrist is making an appreciable difference in people’s lives every single day.

And it is hearing about that difference that she is looking forward to.

Most of the patients her team will be treating will suffer from cataracts or pterygium, two conditions that can leave people completely blind but can usually be fixed within minutes.

Six weeks after the operations, the patients will come back for any post-op treatment and to talk to those who restored their sight.

“They talk about the change that happened for them since the surgery and I feel like these will be incredibly heartfelt stories to hear.”

Because of social-distancing concerns due to Covid, there has been no screening for eye conditions by Mercy Ships for two years. It is expected Hawthorne’s team will screen and treat thousands of babies, children and adults.

Though Hawthorne had applied for a position on the ship more than a year ago, she only found out in November that she was wanted in the Canary Islands in early January.

Once there she will travel to Senegal to set up and then manage and eye clinic on the Global Mercy ship for six months.

Part of that preparation is raising money. Those who work for Mercy Ships don’t just volunteer their skills, they pay their own way.

To that end she has been saving money for years, but has also been assisted by donations from friends and family to her Mercy Ship donation page, and by grants from Rotary Ngamotu, Taranaki Eye Centre and by her church, Equippers in New Plymouth.

She’s also been brushing up on her high school French with the language one of the official languages of Senegal and widely spoken.

“We’ll see how that goes,” she says. “I’m a bit rusty.”

As well as eye surgery the Mercy Ships offer surgery to treat neglected club foot, cleft lip and palate repair, major paediatric orthopaedic surgery, plastic surgery for disability from severe burns, and women’s health surgery.

The charity places a strong emphasis on strengthening healthcare systems and building medical capacity by mentoring and upskilling local healthcare workers.

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