In Ciénaga’s commercial district, people busily travel via motor cycles and ciclotaxis.
In the poorer barrios outside of Ciénaga, homes are made of many types of salvaged materials.
Last year as I was traveling along the Caribbean coast of Colombia, en route to Santa Marta from Cartagena, I passed through an area that struck me by its level of poverty. On either side of the highway stood communities of shacks made of corrugated metal, cardboard or other materials that I’m sure were discarded by others. A few miles later we passed through the congested town of Ciénaga, packed with vendors, motorcycles, and bicycles with carts behind (ciclotaxis) carrying people here and there. It was a place that I remembered well after traveling around Colombia, even though I only experienced it through a bus window.
A team of eye doctors, including Joe Fammartino (center), have come to Colombia for the past two decades to give aid in the area of eye health with Medical Ministry International.
The morning after their surgery is first time that patients can see clearly after having their cataracts removed (left) or see themselves without crossed eyes after their strabismus is corrected (right).
Patients waiting in the hospital before their surgeries ranged in age from 4 to those in their mid-90’s.
I have known about the medical projects in Colombia run by Medical Ministry International for several years. Dear friends of mine have been traveling with this group to Colombia for decades and going with them has been on my wish list for as long as they’ve been telling me about it. For two weeks this January, I was finally able to join them. As we pulled into Ciénaga the first day, it felt distantly familiar. This time I was not driving beyond the poverty-stricken barrios and bustling commercial center that I had seen last year. I was going right into the heart of it.
A side effect of the drops given to children to dilate their eyes is drowsiness. These children sleep as they wait to be seen at the next station.
Children and families were common at the clinic and brought smiles to those waiting in line with their playfulness.
We were a group of 70 – Americans, Colombians and Canadians. Many in the group were doctors, others were translators, still others came along to fill in wherever there was need. With the help of ~70 additional Colombians from a local church, a school compound was transformed into a clinic. At a nearby hospital, an operating room was modified to accommodate multiple patients simultaneously. Our focus was eye health. Even on this first day, we began seeing people in the clinic, screening their vision and scheduling surgeries for the next day.
Every morning people waited outside the gates for the clinic to open. Some of the people seen above arrived at 2 a.m. and had traveled over 6 hours to get to the clinic.
For many, new glasses provide the help that people needed to see better.
Some came for reading glasses, others for better prescription glasses. Moms brought their kids for screening. Some came with diabetes and glaucoma; others with undiagnosed conditions. Many came with cataracts and pterygia, both of which are prevalent in the area due to the intensity of the sun coupled with its reflection on the water in this community whose livelihoods closely associated with the water. Children and a few adults came with strabismus (crossed eyes) and several arrived who were missing an eye completely. For them, the question, “How do I look?” carries much weight, since their appearance causes ridicule and unacceptance and can prevent employment or the prospect of marriage, in addition to making them not look as they might desire.
For others who came with cataracts, surgery was required.
The difference before (left) and after a strabismus was corrected is marked. This surgery allows patients to see better and more importantly to some, brings more social acceptance from their peers.
The inventory of prosthetic eyes varied slightly in color and size to ensure a better fit for patients in need of them.
Miladys is from the local church. She welcomed people into the clinic and attended the restrooms. She lost her right eye when she was a child and received a prosthetic eye the first day the clinic opened this year.
Every morning when we arrived at the school, a line stretched down the street, people expectantly and patiently waiting. In my daily life I have not given much thought to eye issues, so I was surprised a the sheer number of people who came, some having traveled great distances, to seek help in this area. By the time we closed down the clinic and operating room, after ten days of being open, over 5700 people had been served.
Fran Logan from Santa Fe, NM tests a patient’s near vision.
Maria (left), who escorted her father, Isidro to the clinic over a three day period, for his cataracts, is ready to take him home after his post-op examination. One of the first stations people visit (right) tests their near vision.
I had come with the group to serve as the photographer. While others spent hours each day in one room, testing long- or short-range vision, fitting glasses, or performing surgeries, I flowed in and out of each room, witnessing special moments that occurred at each station. I met the people who waited in line outside, heard their stories, and visited some of their homes.
A patient is ready to be moved to the operating room for her cataract while others are prepped with anesthesia in the background.
Doctors mark patients’ patches (left) so that they can easily identify who they operated on the following day during post-ops. Cataracts removed from patients (right) were a range of opacities and colors.
Dr. Roger Barth secures an eye cup on a patient just after performing cataract surgery.
After surgeries were completed, many hugs were exchanged between the medical team and patients.
As I saw more of this area that last year I had passed by, the people of Ciénaga inched their way into my heart. Most do not have material possessions or even what many would consider basic comforts. But the people I met, young and old, are brave and generous with what they do have. They stood many hours in line, waiting and not necessarily knowing what to expect. Those that came to the hospital for surgery faced lying on an operating table, awake, as people operated on their eye, speaking a language they did not understand. Every day, as people left the clinic and hospital, they hugged those that had helped them, gave gifts (usually jewelry they were wearing or something they’d made) as tokens of appreciation, and lifted up praises to God – – whether their condition was fixed or not. In their vulnerability there was strength, and in their faith, hope.
Equipment (left) was transported from the US and Canada for screening purposes. Nalfranquel Ronani (right) waits further instruction the morning after his cataract surgery.
For the next few blog posts, I will be highlighting aspects of my time in Ciénaga, the people who came for help from the medical team, and the communities in the area.
Some irreparable conditions were more evident than others, such as that of Tilsia Maria (left). Fernay (right) returned after having one eye corrected last year. The doctors this year found nerve damage in his other eye, so he will never see better through it. Even though some patients received bad news like this, they were gracious and thankful for MMI’s efforts in their area.