July 21, 2017
Daily life in displacement wears on the body in many ways. Al-Zaatari camp is located on a 5 km stretch of land in the desert, just 13km from the Syrian border. For children in Al-Zaatari camp, the pervasive dust and dirt can lead to ocular conditions like irritation and allergic conjunctivitis, according to Dr. Natalie Weil, a pediatric ophthalmologist who recently joined us in Jordan for our latest medical mission.
“They have chronic ocular irritation year round. Many children rub their eyes because of this and it can worsen their symptoms and astigmatism. This can lead to decreased vision and a need for glasses.”
For the first time on a medical mission to Jordan, we were able to provide pediatric ophthalmology surgeries to save and correct the vision of Syrian and Jordanian children. Dr. Natalie Weil was joined by her colleague Dr. Soroosh Behshad and Dr. Elizabeth Steele, an anesthesiologist that Dr. Weil refers to as a “jack of all trades,” as she is able to manage adults and children with many different medical issues. They also received support from ophthalmology resident Ghazal, who fled Syria with her family and is currently pursuing her studies in Jordan. During the six days, Dr. Weil performed 11 pediatric ophthalmology surgeries and 70 consultations.
Dr. Weil heard about our mission from her colleague, Dr. Soroosh Behshad who had attended a previous mission. Originally from Louisiana, Dr. Weil completed her fellowship at Emory University, and now focuses her practice on strabismus surgeries, and pediatric intra-ocular surgeries.
Although she’s performed many such surgeries throughout her career, in Jordan she worked on one of the most complex cases she has encountered. A very young patient came in with bilateral cataracts and cerebral palsy, and had no vision at all in one eye.
“We scheduled the surgery for that same day and it was one of the most difficult cases I’ve ever done.”
“I was able to remove the cataract and put a lens in her eye – she was able to see something on the first day after surgery.”
“The family was just really happy,” Dr. Weil says, describing the joy and gratitude of the girl’s family. It had been countless since the young patient had been able to see anything.
But for this patient and many others, the work has just begun. “She has developed a cataract in her good eye as well. She’ll need surgery in the good eye as well. After she recovers, we can consider doing the second eye.
In Jordan, Dr. Weil switched back and forth from surgery to screenings and consultations. She emphasizes that the first step to correct the majority of ocular issues is a pair of glasses.
“A lot of children who really need glasses have never been examined before,” she says, adding that “Sometimes just giving a kid glasses can change their life.
Even before she came to Jordan, Dr. Weil worked with our missions team to ensure that we will be able to partner with the local economy in Jordan to provide glasses. SAMS contracted with a local optical shop, and they will be making the glasses and bringing them to children in Al-Zaatari camp.
“These children have gone through so much already,” Dr. Weil says, describing how crossed or drifting eyes can be a social issue as well as a physical one, having a dramatic impact on a child’s quality of life. For Dr. Weill, eyesight is central to development in ways that we may not anticipate, especially at a young age.
“Children are learning new things. Not being able to see puts them behind in school, in terms of their learning and social development.”
“If we can do something to help their vision and their situation, it’s a small thing but it may make a difference in their rest of their lives, in how they see themselves and how other people see them too.”