I have always wanted to volunteer abroad to help make a difference in a country with much fewer resources than the UK

After researching on the Vision Aid Overseas website and seeing the bursary to volunteer on offer for second year optometry students, I was instantly compelled to apply.  I have always wanted to volunteer abroad to help make a difference in a country with much fewer resources than the UK and working with Vision Aid Overseas using and developing the skills I have already gained at university seemed like an excellent opportunity.

After arriving in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia we spent the most part of the next day travelling out to the town Nekemte in the Oromia region in West Ethiopia.  During our first week there, we carried out many sight tests for patients, some of whom had travelled huge distances to see us.  We were lucky enough to have one of the only ophthalmologists in the region working with us, meaning we were not only able to refract and give glasses to hundreds of people but also to refer patients to the ophthalmologist for basic procedures such as cataract surgery.  It was incredible to see the volumes of people we managed to refract and were able to help by giving them the glasses they needed and any surgery required to improve their vision. 

As a student, I was excited to be able to participate in so many of the duties at the clinic.  I got the chance to test patient's unaided vision, carry out numerous sight tests with supervision, witness tropical diseases and conditions which had developed to a much greater extent than they would have in the UK, observe surgeries carried out by the ophthalmologist and help by teaching the refraction nurses to improve their skills.  I am astounded by how much I have learnt about refractions and pathologies during my time with Vision Aid Overseas.  I was also working with an amazing group of people and brilliant team leaders who supported and encouraged us as students throughout the trip.

My confidence and skills improved greatly over the trip; I was challenged more than I have been before as I was working in a primitive area, with few facilities and resources, and a language barrier between us and the patients.  The fact that I was able to cope with this and still refract the large numbers of patients that the team did proved to me that a lot is possible when you put your mind to it and push your boundaries.

In the second week in Ethiopia, we moved to Menelik II Referral Hospital in Addis Ababa.  We spent the week there teaching ophthalmology students how to refract objectively and subjectively.  The students were so enthusiastic and keen to learn which made teaching them extremely enjoyable.  The students have limited refraction training and in the week their skills and techniques improved massively.  It was incredible to know that these skills can now be put to use by the ophthalmology students and passed onto other students at the hospital.

Although the trip was not a typical Vision Aid Overseas trip and had its challenges such as last minute changes to where we would be working during the second week, I felt that this pushed us to work together very well as a team and be adaptable and flexible.

The experience highlighted to me how extremely lucky and privileged we are in the UK for all of the amenities and equipment we have so readily available, but also showed me a beautiful country and new culture, with welcoming people who were so grateful to receive our help.  

I would love the opportunity to volunteer again with Vision Aid Overseas as a qualified optometrist and would encourage students and optometrists to volunteer also.

Amy Gumbrell, Plymouth University, 2nd year Optometry Student