DR Helena Ndume, who is popularly known as Namibia’s miracle doctor, is a beacon of hope, who is continually putting the Land of the Brave on the international map, with her selflessness and passion.
She is a pioneering ophthalmologist, who has to date, performed over 35 000 sight-restoring surgeries, completely free of charge.
On 12 April, she won the New African Woman Award, in the Health, Science and Technology category. Held at the Terrou-Bi hotel in the Senegalese capital Dakar, the awards recognise, celebrate and honour African women, who have made an exceptional impact and change in their countries or communities in the past 12 months. This just the latest in a long list of accolades, which include being awarded the inaugural United Nations Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela Prize in 2015. Dr Ndume was the very first recipient of the prize, which is awarded in recognition of an individual’s dedicated service to humanity, in the promotion of reconciliation, social cohesion and community development, guided by the purposes and principles of the UN.
Confidente’s Marianne Nghidengwa caught up with Dr Ndume at the Windhoek Central Hospital last Thursday, as she shared the devastating news with a Mariental mother that her 11-year-old daughter will never see again.
The young girl, who is suffering from tuberculosis (TB) meningitis, has had her brain and optic nerve affected by the disease.
TB meningitis occurs when tuberculosis bacteria invade the membranes and fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord. The infection usually begins elsewhere in the body, usually in the lungs, and then travels through the bloodstream to the meninges, where small abscesses called microtubercles are formed.
Dr Ndume holds the mother’s hand as she gives her the devastating news.
The world-renowned eye doctor, who went into exile at the age of 15, and later studied in the German cities of Leipsig and Saarbrücken, tells Confidente that she deals with cases like these on a regular basis.
“Telling parents that their children will never see again, or that their children’s eyes will have to be surgically removed, is the most difficult part of my career, spanning over 20 years.
“Sadly, these things happen. I will have to counsel the mother. The only thing we can do for them now is to inform her to register her daughter with the School for the Visually Impaired in Khomasdal. Unfortunately there is not one (blind school) in Mariental, where they live,” Dr Ndume says.
“It’s terrible for them. It’s devastating. It adds a burden of caring for the child. One moment her daughter was well, running around, and in another moment, she is sitting here, unable to see.”
Despite the challenges that visually impaired children face, Dr Ndume is hopeful that the girl will adapt.
“I have been to the School for the Visually Impaired. I saw how children there adapted to their environment. They study well, they do sport and they even do art. I commend the teachers there for doing a great job. I have no doubt that she too will be just fine, the only difference is she has no vision.”
Dr Ndume, who is herself a mother, said she is touched deeply by such cases.
“As an eye doctor, I know these things happen. I have also seen far worse cases of retinoblastoma, a cancer of the eye in minors. In extreme cases, I surgically remove both eyes, to prevent the tumour from spreading to the brain… Such cases touch me deeply; it’s scary, and it’s difficult.”
Dr Ndume voluntary work is the stuff of legends, and has earned her the title of Namibia’s miracle doctor, both inside the country and abroad. In August 1997, her first so-called first Eye Camp was held at Rundu, and currently, four or five of these camps are held each year in different locations.
She confirmed to Confidente that she has performed over 35 000 sight-restoring surgeries, since completing her studies in 1996 in Germany.
Dr Ndume says she is humbled by the awards she has received over the years, but quickly points out that the real reward for her has always been the lives of those she touches.
“I encourage the youth to emulate what we do, to make a difference. Our youth must work very hard; it’s not about the money, but changing people’s lives.
“It is nice to receive an award, but the real reward is in the lives of people you’ve touched. It is very fulfilling.”
Dr Ndume says that after the high of the New African Woman Awards ceremony, she is back at home, doing what she loves most.
She says she is fully booked until October.
Despite her tight schedule, she squeezes in voluntary eye camp work, which sees her travel to remote areas in various regions, to operate on people suffering from blindness caused by cataracts – a cloudiness that develops in the crystalline lens of the eye.
Cataracts affect over six million Africans. This year, five Eye Camps are lined up in Ohangwena, Oshana, Omusati, Kavango and //Karas.
With the help of an international mix of doctors from Surgical Eye Expeditions (SEE) International and Seeing Without Borders, as well as Namibian doctors, Dr Ndume will operate on at least 400 patients in each region.
The Eye Camps are Dr Ndume’s initiative, which she introduced in Namibia after completing her studies. She briefly worked in India, where she helped the less fortunate through Eye Camps, while travelling from village to village.
“India’s population is nothing compared to ours, but I have learnt from ophthalmologists there. With so many poor people affected by eye problems, one of the effective ways the majority of them (Indians) were treated was through Eye Camps. That’s where I got the idea from. But it was after I attended a conference in Atlanta, United States, under the banner of the America Academy of Ophthalmologists, that I was able to introduce Eye Camps in Namibia. The conference brings together eye doctors from all over the world, where we learn about the latest technologies, medicine, treatment and companies in the field.
“It was at that conference that I came across SEE International, an organisation that goes to most third world countries to help in the fight against preventable blindness. Upon arriving back in Namibia, I got to work and successfully set up the first Eye Camp in 1997.”
Dr Ndume commended the Namibian government for assisting her team to fight blindness.
“Our past and present presidents and ministers have rendered immeasurable help in our efforts to fight blindness. We’ve had presidents join us on the trips to greet the patients. The Ministry of Defence has been a great help, in transporting our machines and equipment to remote areas. The current Minister of Health and Social Services, Dr Bernhard Haufiku, volunteered and followed us to Angola, where we had an Eye Camp in 2005. He was with us for a week. This type of outreach with Dr Haufiku did not start when he became minister, but during his days as a doctor.”
Despite the mammoth challenges associated with preparing these Eye Camps, Dr Ndume says the changes she makes in people’s lives is what keeps her going.
“Changing people’s lives is what makes us go back. The patients and the dedicated team is what encourages me to go back, to make meaningful differences in the lives of people.”
Although eye problems are common and widespread, Dr Ndume says it is critical that people take care of their eyes.
“People should eat healthy, and consume carrots, mangoes, leafy vegetables and other fruits and vegetables, which are rich in Vitamin A. That vitamin is important for healthy eyes.”
She adds that avoiding alcohol is equally important.
Dr Ndume says that she has had to surgically remove the eyes of those who had damaged them in alcohol-related incidents.
Recalling one such case, Dr Ndume said that a 23-year-old man was shot in the eye, during a heated fight at a shebeen last year.
Dr Ndume said that the eye was reduced to pulp, and was removed during a two-hour operation.
In another incident, a baby lost its right eye, after being used as a shield by the mother, when she was attacked by the father.
A third case involved a man who was severely assaulted by his wife, to the extent that his eye had to be surgically removed.
“The woman brought the man to hospital, and was present throughout the surgery and took him home. Their fight was money and alcohol-related.”
Dr Ndume added that during last year, she also had to surgically remove the eyes of 30 women, who were physically assaulted by their partners.
“These incidents mostly happened at month-end, when the women reportedly asked their partners for money. They end up fighting and the consequences are severe, because people lost their eyes.”
Confidente. Lifting the Lid. Copyright © 2015