First Surgical Safari Goes to Congo

by John Cropsey

Two weeks ago, the Kibuye Eye Team returned from its first-ever surgical safari trip to Eastern Congo. The team included 6 Burundian eye staff, myself, and Eric McLaughlin.  Going into the trip, we were praying that God would make it clear whether or not we should go in light of the ongoing rebel activity in the area.  God seemed to make the way clear for us and reports from the missionaries on the ground said that all was calm, so we moved ahead with the trip.  We drove two vehicles from Kibuye to the Congo border, which was nothing more than a couple little buildings and a rickety one-lane bridge over a swamp.  We were thankful for the Congolese medical director who met us there and helped clear us through customs on the Congolese side without having to pay any major fees or taxes on our expensive equipment.  Upon entering Congo, the roads immediately changed from tarmac to dirt which we followed for the next 3 hours, sandwiched between the mountains and Lake Tanganyika.  We had to ford a few rivers, but only had to pull the team van out once with the 4x4 landcruiser.

When we arrived at Nundu Free Methodist Hospital, a sister hospital of Kibuye, we got right to work setting up our mobile operating room and organizing clinic for the following day. They already had 80+ patients pre-registered, so on the first day we screened those patients and found the ones needing cataract surgery. 

Since this was the first time that eye surgery had ever been offered in this area, many patients were afraid and only two of the surgical candidates were willing to have surgery that afternoon. 

The first two brave patients!

Thankfully, their surgeries went well and on Tuesday morning, everyone waiting in line saw that they had a good result. By the end of the week, we were able to do 50 surgical cases. We worked some really long days, several times operating past midnight. Our hosts, the Matthewsons, kept us well-fed and cared for and are now overseeing post-operative care for the patients.

My most memorable patient was this old man. When I first met him, I asked him how he was doing. Even though he was totally blind in both eyes, he enthusiastically responded “Je suis très bien!” (which means “I am very well!”). After receiving his sight back early in the week, he became the leading champion for the other patients to have surgery. He came back the last day wanting to have surgery on his second eye. Unfortunately we did not have time and he graciously accepted this.

This 10-year-old boy had bilateral cataracts and hadn’t seen since age 3. We successfully removed both of his cataracts using ketamine (intravenous) for anesthesia.  

Nundu is trying to rebuild after chronic civil war in the region. Some of the houses still remain gutted with everything having been taken except for the concrete walls and occasionally the roof.

Most of the Burundian eye staff that joined us on the trip had never been outside of Burundi before. This trip opened their eyes to the differences in culture, language, etc. that exist between their African brothers & sisters. Unlike Burundi, where a large number of patients suffer from something I have dubbed “Kurima Syndrome” (see note below), all of the Congolese patients who came to see us had an actual eye problem. The staff had never seen such a high percentage of actual eye disease!

Dr. Toney Van Mugisha -- my Burundian colleague (a Hope Africa medical grad) who hopes to complete an ophthalmology residency in the future

Elysée -- ophthalmic nurse

Josiane -- ophthalmic nurse


Pastor Emmanuel - vision screener, OR circulator

Pastor Hilaire - cashier, technician

Anosiate -- cleaner, patient attendant (talking to patient with paper in her hand)

Kurima Syndrome:  The word “kurima” means “to hoe” in Kirundi. It was the first verb that we learned and we initially thought that was weird, but shortly realized that it is because subsistence farming with a hoe is how most people make their living. For some reason, when patients have radiating pain in their neck and/or back, headache or chest/stomach pain, it is attributed to a problem with the eyes (as opposed to it being attributed to hoeing all day long or carrying large loads on their heads). So, they come to see me even though they often have no actual complaint with their eyes or vision. Dr. Toney, my Burundian colleague, has become very adept at screening these patients. So, imagine his surprise (and delight) when he realized that this phenomenon doesn’t exist in Congo.

This trip was a dream come true for me as God has given me the vision to bring eye care to hard-to-reach places in this region of Africa. We hope to return to Nundu on a regular basis. Thanks to all of you who prayed for us and this trip. Please continue to remember these patients in your prayers and pray that the seed of the Gospel that has been planted would grow in their hearts and lives. 

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