Volunteering gave me the chance to reflect on my role as an optometrist and motivated me to continue making a difference.


At the end of my first year at university I received an email from a lecturer about the Irvine Aitchison Memorial Fund (IAMF) bursary available to second year students. I avidly checked the Vision Aid Overseas website to see when the applications were open and eagerly applied. Fervently hoping that I could one day volunteer for Vision Aid Overseas (VAO), this seemed like the perfect opportunity for me. I felt like the skills I acquired from my studies, working as an optical assistant and my previous volunteering work tailored me to aid the success of the VAO assignment.

 

Our assignment was based in a town called Kafue, which was roughly an hour from the capital city of Zambia, Lusaka. Throughout the assignment, my time was shared between the clinic we set up at the Kafue General Hospital and delivering outreach services to towns and villages surrounding Kafue. It was only the first day when I realised the importance of the work of VAO, as I was able to see the vast limitations of the access to eye care and the difference we could make. I was so pleased with the huge number of patients we were not only able to refract and dispense but to also refer them for further investigation or treatment.

 

I was exposed to a wide variety of skills, from working with experienced optometrists in a completely different environment, to dispensing glasses to the locals- where sometimes we didn’t even speak the same language. This helped me develop personally as well as shaping me as a clinician to equip me with a unique set of transferable skills that I will utilise for the rest of my career.

 

In Zambia, I was introduced to a huge variety of patients, pathology and refractive error. Some of the pathology that we saw was at a very advanced stage of which we would probably rarely see at such an extent in the UK. I loved interacting with the locals, which only facilitated a meaningful cultural exchange between the local community and myself. One particular patient’s story really touched me- he was highly myopic and had never had glasses before but, described his difficulty working/providing for his family. When the optometrist took him outside with the trial frame on and showed him what his vision would be like in his new glasses, he was overwhelmed by the clarity in his newfound vision. Being able to make a difference and seeing the impact that your actions have on someone’s life is incredibly powerful. When we went on outreach it was a chance to experience what their lives are like, getting to grips with the problems they are facing on a daily basis. It was an amazing feeling to feel like you are a part of the solution by improving their vision and ultimately their life.

 

The experience affects you on many different levels and is something I will treasure forever. It helped me discover what you really need to be happy, and to appreciate what I took for granted back home. Volunteering gave me the chance to reflect on my role as an optometrist and motivated me to continue making a difference. This is one of the reasons why I aspire to be a team leader for VAO so I can fulfill my passion of helping people.

 

Thank you to the amazing team (Mark Esbester, Caroline Clarke, Shameela Rauf, Debika Gurung, Angelina Bhopal and Niraj Vaitha) who were  supportive, encouraging and hardworking. All of the volunteers were all there for one reason – to do good and help change the lives of the people. This shared passion was only intensified as we bonded over our experiences on the project. My fellow volunteers gave me so much confidence and it was a pleasure working with all of them. Mark Esbester (team leader) and Caroline Clarke (deputy team leader) combined their breadth of knowledge with their enthusiasm to create an enriching experience for all of us. Also, a special thank you goes to David Mwitumwa, Benard Nyirenda and Judith who contributed enormously to the success of this assignment.

 

Thank you to all the Vision Aid Overseas staff at home that made our trip a success and to the IAMF for choosing me for this experience.

 

Rejoana Ali