It was only a week-long trip for Jane Machin, but that was enough time to help screen 741 people in desperate need of eye care in some of the poorest parts of Sierra Leone.
The Estepona-based eye specialist was one of a team of five British optometrists who flew out to the country to help diagnose sight-related problems and provide training for local technicians and students.
Organised by the UK charity Vision Aid Overseas, the charitable trip saw Jane and her team visit several communities in the West African country, where locals don't have access to eye care.
Jane, 60, who works at Optica Machin in Estepona and has lived in Spain since 1987, said: “The trip went very well. I could only stay for a week due to work commitments, but it was enough for me to show the group how to set up the clinics and the routines we follow in running them.
“We screened 741 people, both adults and children. Of those nearly 400 were examined more thoroughly and over 200 pairs of spectacles were dispensed. We referred 87 people to the hospital for treatment by the ophthalmologist.”
For Jane, this is her fourth trip with Vision Aid Overseas, having visited Uganda in 2012, Ethiopia in 2013 and Sierra Leone in 2016.
“The most common visual problem was older people needing glasses for close work,” said Jane, who was born in Essex.
“We found that often the teachers couldn't see to read and this made it difficult for them to teach. Medical workers such as nurses also had problems with near vision and this could be a problem in gauging dosages for medication.”
The trip itself was very tiring for the team who, after loading their car, would usually travel for about two hours on rough roads through the jungle to clinics.
“The longest trip was four hours each way, although my team did that in the second week so I missed that one,” explained Jane.
“As we had to be back to the hotel before dark, it is quite stressful trying to make sure that we see everyone who needs to be seen. Also the language can be challenging in the tribal areas as we occasionally needed two translators, one from English to Creole and then from Creole into the tribal language.
“But the locals were very pleased to see us. They made us welcome and we were invited to eat with them after the clinic, usually a big plate of spicy fish and rice shared with all the workers.”
The highlight of the trip for Jane was seeing the progress that had been made since her last trip to the country in 2016.
She explained: “There are now three ophthalmologists in Sierra Leone for seven million people. Last year there was just one. This year there are two optometrists with two more in training and there are now 12 optical technicians, with one still in training, and four vision centres in the eastern and northern provinces.
“There is still a long way to go but you can see a time when we will become redundant and the vision care programme will become self sustaining. That is very satisfactory!”
As for whether Jane plans to do any more trips overseas, she added: “I would love to do another trip but I might have to wait until next year. I would go where they need me. At the moment Vision Aid is working in Zambia, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Ghana and Burkina Faso.”
Vision Aid Overseas was founded in 1985 after a group of British eye specialists spent two weeks trying to establish eye clinics in Tanzania.
They tested the eyes of local people and dispensed second-hand spectacles collected in the UK. The charity now operates clinics in more than 23 countries and has helped hundreds of thousands of people in developing countries to see.