"We have the skills, but we lack the equipment"…
… says brother Ansgar, Missionary Benedictine at the Benedictine Eye Hospital in Tororo (Uganda), eastern Africa's largest eye hospital. The hospital has a considerable workload: In 2015 it treated 17,229 patients. But while doctors and other medical personnel have their work cut out, they simply lack the equipment to help them. ZEISS recently supported the eye hospital by donating equipment.
Tororo is a town in south-eastern Uganda, close to the border with Kenya. In the 1980s, Missionary Benedictines opened an eye hospital in the area with the intention of offering affordable eye care and avoiding preventable blindness. Today, the Benedictine Eye Hospital is the largest of its kind in eastern Africa, and is staffed by a team of 60 doctors, nurses and healthcare assistants.
In August 2016 Münsterschwarzach abbey (in Schwarzach am Main, Germany) made a call for donations to enable the eye hospital in Tororo to acquire new medical equipment. ZEISS responded to this call by donating equipment. We spoke to Missionary Benedictine brother Ansgar. The internist and tropical medicine specialist spent 16 years living in Uganda and will become head of the eye hospital in Tororo in 2017.
Brother Ansgar, can you describe a typical day at the largest eye hospital in eastern Africa?
"In its early days the hospital had to rely on the support of doctors from abroad, but today only local doctors are employed here, and they do a fine job. The ophthalmologists can perform up to 20 surgeries a day, but cataract procedures are by far the most common, with 2,000 of these performed each year."
Does the team also provide treatment to patients living in the surrounding area of the hospital?
"Yes, that's a major part of the hospital's work because patients often don't come to us of their own accord. Our staff treats patients who live up to 100 km away. Tororo also borders with Kenya, which is why many patients from there make their way to us."
What are the challenges that face the doctors in Tororo on a daily basis?
"Power cuts are a constant source of grief for us. That said, the hospital itself is very well-equipped. But while we have the necessary skills at our disposal, we do lack the medical equipment and the funds to acquire it."
What is healthcare like in Uganda as a whole?
"The colonial era endowed Uganda with an excellent education system: it was the UK that built the universities that enjoy such a good reputation in Africa today. As a result, there is no shortage of highly trained doctors and other medical professionals in Uganda today. In fact, it has one of the best healthcare systems in all of Africa. As a point of comparison: In Uganda there is one doctor for every 1,000 inhabitants, while in neighboring Tanzania there is just one for every 20,000 people."
And what is happening with funding for healthcare in Uganda?
"That is a serious problem: only 5–10% of the population can afford health insurance. The rest is forced to resort to healthcare centers that are subsidized by the state.
At our hospital in Tororo, the patients bear around 20–30 percent of the costs – provided they can afford to. The Benedictine monastery that is connected to the hospital provides 50,000 euros for running costs each year. We are able to cover another portion of the costs thanks to donations from Germany and the USA. And then there are the calls for donations, like the one ZEISS responded to."
Did you get any more responses to your call?
"Yes, we did! 100,000 euros mean we can purchase medical equipment and the donation we received from ZEISS will enable us to ensure the eye hospital is once again on the cutting edge of medicine – and that is really terrific!"
Are there any patient stories from Tororo that moved you?
"Yes, I can tell you about one very special family story, where a genetic defect resulted in cataracts that affected one couple's three very small children. Congenital cataracts is associated with eye deformations, which demand complex surgeries. But we were able to help: All three children have now regained their sight and can look forward to a bright future. I must say, that really is the nice part of working at an eye hospital: eye surgeries help people take charge of their own lives once more and enable them to work and thus earn their own living."
Thank you for speaking with us today!
1) At the Benedictine Eye Hospital, patients with serious eye diseases such as cataracts and glaucoma, injuries or scarring after an infection, all receive treatment.
2) The eye hospital has an optical workshop complete with an eyeglass store run by two eye care professionals.
3) Much of the equipment used by the doctors dates back to the time when the hospital was established 30 years ago.