From saving sight to helping save lives in Zambia

May 2020

Bwalya Mwenya, pictured above during her Orbis training, qualified as an ophthalmic clinical officer in 2018. Since then, she has established the first specialized eye clinic in her district in the Copperbelt Province of Zambia.

Bwalya is passionate about providing eye care in her community: "There were a lot of eye cases, and a lot of people going blind – children, older people with cataract, [people with] glaucoma. It used to make me feel really bad. That’s when I decided to do ophthalmology."

Along with four other clinical officers, Bwalya's training was sponsored by Orbis as part of our Vision for Zambia project, funded by the UK Department for International Development. The project also provided equipment for the specialised eye unit, established in part by Bwalya.

Bwalya receiving eye drops from Orbis (prior to COVID-19)

However, when the hospital in which the eye unit is located was converted into an isolation centre for patients with coronavirus, Bwalya – like thousands of health workers across the world – saw her role change dramatically.

“Since I’m a clinical officer by background – before I became an eye specialist – I’m using that skill to screen patients on the road. We’ve set up a checkpoint. We have to screen trucks, we have to screen cars and then those on buses have to come out, wash their hands and also be screened. The purpose of the screening is to identify any people who might have coronavirus,” she explains.

She works at the checkpoint with her colleagues and two soldiers, checking vehicles running between Ndola and Lusaka. They also have to explain to people the critical importance of following the province's public health recommendations and guidelines. “It takes a lot for people to really understand. We’ve said mandatory masks, but you see people who come without wearing masks. It’s a learning process," Bwalya says.

Although it might not immediately seem connected, Bwalya explains that her training from Orbis has helped her in this new role. “With the training obtained from Orbis, I have been able to identify people presenting with various eye conditions - like conjunctivitis - as a sign of infection, helping me to probe further in case identification. [My previous training] on infection control has helped me understand coronavirus.”

Masaiti District Hospital is a newly constructed hospital, with 30 operational bed spaces. Though she is at the checkpoint currently, Bwalya explained that once the number of cases grows, her role may change again. “For the moment I’m on the checkpoint, for as long as I don’t know - but there will be a point I will have to attend to the patients themselves.”

She voiced concerns about what would happen if coronavirus spread too quickly in the area, and the hospital was overwhelmed. This is why the checkpoint plays an important role in the province’s response, to help them identify and trace suspected patients as soon as possible.

Bwalya taking a patient's temperature to check for signs of coronavirus

She is very aware of the inherent risk in the role. “It’s very risky, especially when we have challenges when it comes to protective clothing. There isn’t enough. We have gloves and a mask, which I fear is not enough. We need gumboots, we need the gear. It’s risky, but we are trying our best.” Bwalya tells us, though, that she is very proud of the work she’s doing, “because we’re saving lives. Though I feel bad for my eye patients because they have nowhere to go…but I feel so good that we’re saving lives.”

Despite Bwalya’s pride in her role fighting coronavirus, her passion for eye care means she’s itching to get back to her patients. “People are really suffering a lot. It’s a huge challenge. Where we are, in a rural setting, they use mostly traditional medications. Now that the hospital is closed, they will use these herbal things, which might damage the eye – so it’s really a challenge… I am praying to get back to my eye patients every day. I really can’t wait. There will be a backlog of patients - a lot of them. We have to be prepared for that. People are suffering. We need to go out into the community and deliver eye services.”

Thanks to generous donations, and the support of the UK government, Bwalya received crucial training that is now helping Zambia’s fight against coronavirus. Hopefully, it won’t be too long before she can return to her role fighting blindness.

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