The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - MAITHRI GOONETILLEKE

A young Aus­tralian doc­tor in Swazi­land

IT was a hot day. Sweat beaded off my skin on to the stetho­scope that hung around my neck like the jet black arm of an old friend. We had been driv­ing for hours over rocky, red-clay roads lined with maize, thatched huts and oc­ca­sional sun­flow­ers.

The chal­lenge at each homestead we vis­ited was not sim­ply to hand out food and medicine, but to lis­ten closely and to un­der­stand the many rea­sons why some­one was sick. Then we could help them over­come their ob­sta­cles to re­cov­ery.

There are 34 com­mu­ni­ties, and that amounts to lit­er­ally thou­sands of pa­tients. I don’t know how those in the home-based-care team man­age to know not only the di­rec­tions to ev­ery hut or homestead, but the story be­hind each per­son. How­ever, I am grate­ful that they do.

Late in the af­ter­noon we came to a poorly con­structed stick-and-stone house with a sheet metal roof. It was hard to be­lieve that it was still stand­ing. I asked the oth­ers in the team about the house and the per­son who lived there.

It was Make Ma­posa who shared with me the story of the man that we had come to see, one of the fam­ily mem­bers who lived in the house that now stood be­fore us. ‘‘We have heard there is an old man here with un­treated TB. He is re­fus­ing to come to hospi­tal.’’

At the en­trance to the homestead we got out of the truck and were greeted by a vi­brant, young Swazi man, one of the bread­win­ners for the house­hold. He told us to fol­low him into the home where his fam­ily were await­ing us. As the group was walking to­wards the house, I stopped short. Hud­dled in a lonely cor­ner, just out­side the house, I saw an old woman. ‘‘Who is she?’’ I asked. ‘‘Our Gogo,’’ the young man replied. ‘‘Why is she sit­ting like that?’’ ‘‘Don’t worry about her, Dokotela. She is old now and blind. And that is where she al­ways sits.’’ ‘‘Can she walk?’’ I added. ‘‘Not really. Only a few steps. We bring her food. We take her in to sleep at night. Her legs don’t work any more.’’

I knelt down be­side her in the burn­ing sun. The flies swarmed. Look­ing in her eyes, it was clear that she had bi­lat­eral cataracts. I had a hunch that it was vis­ual im­pair- ment, as op­posed to de­creased mo­bil­ity, that had ren­dered her un­able to walk.

I asked her to stand. She did. We gave her a walking stick, and asked her to walk if she could. By then other mem­bers of her fam­ily had gath­ered around. To her fam­ily’s sur­prise, Gogo be­gan to walk.

I ex­plained to the fam­ily, with Make Ma­posa help­ing with the trans­la­tion: ‘‘The rea­son that Gogo can­not see and isn’t walking is be­cause she has cataracts cov­er­ing her eyes. She needs an op­er­a­tion to have them re­moved. Af­ter­wards, she will be able to see.’’

Gogo, whose face had re­mained down­cast for our en­tire con­ver­sa­tion, lifted her face to­wards the blind­ing sun, and smiled. That day, as so of­ten hap­pens, we tended to sev­eral peo­ple in the one house, when only one per­son was on our list.

In the de­vel­op­ing world, blind­ness of­ten dras­ti­cally re­duces life­span. Blind­ness means that peo­ple be­come un­able to fend for them­selves in al­ready dif­fi­cult con­di­tions. Yet cataract blind­ness is an em­i­nently treat­able con­di­tion. The surgery is in­ex­pen­sive and it takes about 20 min­utes. My friend Jonathan Pons does most of the cataract surg­eries in Swazi­land. He is a per­son of enor­mous in­tegrity and deep com­pas­sion.

I have stood in Jono’s clinic at the Good Shep­herd Hospi­tal the day af­ter men and women have had cataract surgery. There will never be words to de­scribe what it is to watch as a group of peo­ple, who were blind just 24 hours ear­lier, have the white ban­dages re­moved from their eyes and find their sight has been re­stored.

They start to sing, in groups, in four and five-part har­monies, with­out any prompt­ing. This is an edited ex­tract from Vula Be­valile: Let­ters from a Young Doc­tor, by Maithri Goonetilleke (Ilura Press, $32.95). The book is a col­lec­tion of vi­gnettes by Goonetilleke, an Aus­tralian doc­tor who has been con­tribut­ing his time vol­un­tar­ily in Swazi­land, a coun­try dev­as­tated by ex­treme poverty and HIV/AIDS. All prof­its from the book go to­wards Goonetilleke’s hu­man­i­tar­ian ef­forts in the African na­tion. More: pos­si­ble­dream­sin­ter­na­

Aus­tralian doc­tor Maithri Goonetilleke with a Swazi boy

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