Since Teté Ferreiro and Elena Barraquer gave me the opportunity to work with them at the Foundation and help them preparing the medical expeditions, I have lived each one of them with a lot of emotion and nervousness, but always from the other side of the computer and the WhatsApp: making sure that teams have everything, that the plane tickets are correct, that there are no problems with the documents, visas, vaccinations, luggage…
But being able to take part directly in one of them, and in a country like Sierra Leone, has been one of the best experiences of my life and without a doubt it will help me improve in my work and I hope that also as a person.
I must admit that the arrival in Freetown is quite impressive and the first couple of days there were not easy: assemble the operating room, get familiar with all the material we carry in 32 suitcases, prepare it… a first day a bit frustrating with very few patients (especially considering that in all Sierra Leone there are only five ophthalmologists). But, once the small problems were solved, we managed to operate an average of 70 patients daily for a total of 332 cataracts.
The city is somehow chaotic. It was built for 80,000 people and currently has a population that reaches 1.5 million people. Infrastructures have remained small and, in many cases, the most basic things you need to live don’t exist.
Our daily work did not leave time for anything other than what we were there for. The day began having breakfast at 06:30, at 07:00 the bus left to the hospital, the first patients that had to be operated that day arrive and are checked, while setting up the operating room and start operating before 09:00, if all went well.
From the examination room the patient went to anaesthesia and from there to the surgery, and when all the patients of the day were visited, then it was the turn of the ones operated on the previous day to see the results and explain the post-op treatment. The whole day like this until well after 21:00, with a small break for a fast lunch and continue. By the time we got to the hotel we were all knackered but looking forward to the next day and being able to do more and more.
It is difficult to explain what you live there in each moment, the tension, the speed with which everything happens and how chaotic it may seem, but at the same time it is incredible the way in which the whole team worked as if they had done it in endless occasions before. I would never have imagined that 10 strangers… most without the least experience in medicine, could carry such a large volume of patients and work and so well. A chain of work, and especially teamwork, that did not cease since the first patient arrived until the last one left.
But no one gave up. You forget all the exhaustion and chaos when you see the first patient with a smile. One of the patients we treated had cataracts in both eyes. Elena did the surgery of one eye in the morning, Leo the second in the afternoon and uncovered the first to see how it had gone. I took him by the hand to help him get off the stretcher, he stared at me and with an immense smile – which hardly fit his face – he looked at me and said: I can see you clearly!
It was a moment and feelings very difficult to describe. The smile of happiness of that man, who in just one day could see again after years of blindness, is the reason why we go to these medical expeditions and why we all want to return.
You can’t avoid getting goose bumps and a small tear after seeing his smile and knowing that he can see yours.
It is the wonder of the expeditions carried out by the Elena Barraquer Foundation, that you can see the results immediately and how life improves for all these people in less than 24 hours.
We have all stopped to think what’s behind all these people who come to surgery, their personal history in a place as complicated as Sierra Leone, the Civil War that shook the country, the terrible Ebola epidemic that left more than 11,500 dead … If at least we manage, between all, to improve their lives a little bit by returning the vision, we are on the right track helping not only them but also their families.
Thanks to the support of Equatorial Coca-Cola Bottling Company and the help of Munatsi, Sonia and Berta, we have been able to go there with a team made up of ten people from the Foundation and two from the Ruta de la Luz. The human team could not have been any better and it is the most valuable memory that I take from this expedition: THE PEOPLE.
Thanks to Elena and Leo, the surgeons who gave everything, easy, difficult and very difficult cataracts that did not resist them. 12 hours of non-stop surgeries where they never forgot their good mood and humour and the joy of returning the sight to these people. But in all these patients there was a common denominator: They got up from the stretcher, thanking sincerely.
To the scrub nurses Natalia and Andrea (who did not always get to see the light when the hospital generator failed) who have taught and guided us in the operating room. I have learned so much with you! Now I distinguish some cannulas, revolutions and something other stuff (but there is still lots of room to learn more!).
To Isa, the most experienced volunteer who after dozens of expeditions, along with Jon, made that our work (even in moments of Minions-style crisis) went all smoothly. The best “Team Statim”!
To Simona, the anaesthetist, sweet and patient with each person who passed through her hands with the great help of Natalia. Her notes on the patients’ files to know if they were afraid and to be able to hold their hands to reassure them everything was going to be ok is another detail of the great team we had.
To Andrés and Edurne who took over the examination room and visited patients at the speed of light. Andrés so quiet in his first 48 hours with the team, and then a machine helping patients. What would we have done without Edurne’s photos and videos! Thanks to her we could see the smiles and improvements of the patients who went through the operating room.
To Julio, the photographer, who saved us from some last-minute issues…
And we could not forget our optometrists of the Ruta de la Luz, Angel and Fernando, who broke graduation records and laugh records. If something was broken, then they made a knot, and that’s it!
To the entire team of the Connaught Hospital, of the Ophthalmology wing, especially to Abi, the nurse who was every day ready for whatever may come, helping us with all the patients.
To Teté, for giving me the opportunity to work with her at the Foundation and for encouraging me to go to Sierra Leone. And to all the girls who prepare all the medical equipment: Mevi, Miriam, Maite, Nuria … Thank you!
And finally, I would like to encourage everyone to, at least once in your life, take part in an expedition and if you can’t, then help the Foundation. As Elena says, if we all donated a week of our life, the world would be a much better place.
Now onto 2020, to continue working and for many more expeditions!