Restoring Vision in the New South Sudan
By Jordan Campbell, AAC
Flying over South Sudan’s vast and desolate landscape, brush fires blaze thousands of feet below us, wafting smoke over the wings of our eight-person aircraft. The fires are lit intentionally by indigenous tribes to fertilize the parched, unforgiving soil. But the sight of smoke plumes rising from the ground also makes me nervous. Although cease-fires and global intervention finally spawned South Sudan’s independence in July 2011, the new African nation remains shaky territory. Deadly skirmishes over cattle between warring tribes are common in the Jonglei state and clashes along the border between North and South Sudan over control of oil-rich lands are a constant threat to the civilian population. Even with the presence of United Nations peacekeeping troops, the entire region remains a volatile international flashpoint.
Seated next to me are two ophthalmic surgeons, Dr. Geoff Tabin and Dr. Alan Crandall, both pioneers in how modern eye care is being delivered in the developing world. The duo has nearly perfected the implementation of “eye camps”—temporary surgical theaters with Western standards—in some of the most far-flung locations throughout Africa and Asia. We’re headed into the remote region of Duk County, where thousands of people disaffected by years of war, struggle daily to obtain the most basic health care. Tabin and Crandall’s ambitious goal is to treat as many cases of unnecessary cataract blindness—rampant throughout the region—in a bold five-day mission. If South Sudan is a gaping hole for the blind and underserved, Duk County is ground zero.
Next to the pilot, shooting stills from his Nikon D700 is Ace Kvale, a fellow AAC member and Marmot Ambassador Athlete. In 2002, Ace and I attempted to climb Sepu Kangri (6956m) located in the expanse of Eastern Tibet. It was a game-changing expedition for both of us. While the alpine climbing was unforgettable, it was eclipsed by the profound connections we made with the Tibetan people and the immense challenges we saw them face. Tibet inspired us to give back and in 2005 we assisted Tabin in two eye-camps in Nepal’s rugged outback. This medical mission to South Sudan represents this ongoing and tectonic shift in my own adventure life: global stewardship—in this case helping people left behind in the vacuum of war—has evolved into my next big undertaking.
We descend through the smoky haze and touch down lightly on a dirt airstrip just outside of Duk Payuel, a small village in the Jonglei state. In addition to being afflicted by decades of war with North Sudan, Jonglei has also experienced years of intertribal feuding over cattle, water and grazing rights. It’s a dangerous Wild West out here and violence erupts without warning. Just two years ago, over 300 people were massacred in a cattle raid in the village of Duk Padiet, only 20 miles away.
Stepping off the plane, our medical team is welcomed by dozens of warm and friendly locals. Towering over all of them, standing 6 ‘8” tall and dressed smartly in a pressed white shirt is John Dau, founder of the Duk Lost Boys Clinic, which treats everything from malaria and leprosy to Cobra bites. Dau, who now lives in the U.S., has teamed up with Tabin and Crandall to bring eye care to his village for the first time ever.
Our team quickly begins preparations for surgery inside the clinic’s makeshift operating rooms. The sun sizzles high overhead as vultures crouch near the clinic entrance. Dinka, Nuer and other tribesmen from the surrounding villages of Duk County gather outside—some have journeyed blindly for as many as four days, led only by their children or grandchildren.
The flow of patients begins with an elderly woman, completely blind from bilateral cataracts. It’s likely this is the first time she’s been to a doctor and she’s visibly nervous. With a reassuring hand on her shoulder, I lead her into the clinic’s dark hallway and administer eye drops to dilate her pupils. She is then ushered along to more qualified personnel that will trim her eyelashes and inject a local anesthesia that will numb her optic nerve. Ace finally assists her into surgery and onto Tabin’s operating table.
With the cross-haired precision of a world-class hunter, Tabin peers through his microscope, fixed on her cornea. “Keep her head completely still…if she moves even slightly it can blow the whole operation,” he barks from under his surgical facemask. Using tiny metallic instruments he delicately removes the clouded lens that has slowly blinded the woman for years. It’s an advanced cataract—rarely seen in North America and Europe—but all too common in the developing world. With steely hands he masterfully replaces the now useless biomass with a new synthetic lens. This astounding procedure will provide near perfect vision for the rest this woman’s life, elevating another South Sudanese from total blindness—back into the light.
The next morning, Tabin and Crandall remove the white gauze bandages from dozens of their patients’ eyes. This is the seminal moment we have all anticipated. One by one, the miraculous gift of sight illuminates their faces as we watch them smile with elation. For many, it’s the first time they have ever seen their grandchildren. These dedicated doctors, with the support of our entire team, have given a handful of South Sudanese their lives back in a harsh and brutal landscape. More days of hard work and long hours await, but for now, euphoria envelops me and a deep sense of satisfaction run through my veins. This is why I came.
In the subsequent five days, Dr. Geoff Tabin and Dr. Alan Crandall and two other western doctors performed 288 successful surgeries at the Lost Boys Clinic. Just days after the team departed South Sudan, the BBC confirmed over 3000 people were killed during intertribal fighting in the Jonglei state—86 of them in nearby Duk Padiet. In recent months, despite the presence of UN peacekeeping forces, violence between North and South Sudan has escalated along the border between the two countries.
About the author:
Jordan Campbell is a member of the American Alpine Club and Marmot Ambassador Athlete.
The documentary film DUK COUNTY | A VISION FOR THE NEW SOUTH SUDAN, starring Dr. Geoff Tabin, John Dau and Dr. Alan Crandall, will launch Spring 2013. Directed by Jordan Campbell and edited by Michael Herbener.
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