Ophthalmologists Paul Imperia and Paul Jorizzo have visited Christmas Island, Kiribati many times over the past 15 years. They were initially drawn to the island as a fishing destination, but return visits were large
ly inspired by the friendships that they formed with the Kitibati people. They are a warm and giving group, quick to smile, and content with their lives without material preoccupations. Strongly bonded to their community, they share in each other’s joys and hardships. As partners at the Medical Eye Center in Medford, Oregon, Paul and Paul often pondered how they could give back to the wonderful people of Christmas Island.
Through the generosity of Carlton Smith and Pacific Island Medical Aid (PIMA), and with the support of Surgical Eye Expeditions (SEE) International, “Dr. Paul and Dr. Paul” were able to fulfill their dream of giving back to their friends. The Medical Eye Center eye surgical team included Dr. Imperia and Dr. Jorizzo, their operating room manager; Max Lentfer, and Andrew Lee who will be enrolling in medical school this fall.
During their one week surgical campaign, the team performed 35 surgeries.
The majority of these were cataract procedures; other surgeries included pterygium excisions and removal of eyelid tumors. With PIMA’s support, many of the patients were transported by ship to Christmas Island from neighboring Fanning and Washington Islands. Dr. Imperia said; “Most of our patients were profoundly blind from cataracts. Many had not been able to see their loved ones for many years. The shared joy that they expressed as they regained the gift of sight was truly inspirational. We are so happy that we were able to help our Kiribati friends”.
The Oregon eye team was joined by Dr. Rabebe who will be the first ophthalmologist in Kiribati when she completes her eye training at the Pacific Eye Institute in Fiji. She was able to assist in many aspects of the surgical campaign and learned advanced cataract surgery techniques from the Oregon doctors. While the eye surgery team was working, the Kiribati Minister of Health and several of his associates were also visiting Christmas Island. They were very impressed with PIMA’s many contributions and achievements.
The dedicated, skilled nurses at Christmas Island worked long hours, in symphony with the American team. Surgeries were performed in the renovated Kiritimati Health Center, and operating microscopes, surgical instruments and supplies were provided by SEE International. In addition to surgical care, eye examinations were provided. Many patients benefitted from glasses, some received medical treatments, and others, especially children, were evaluated for referral to the USA for specialized surgical procedures not available on the island.
Dr. Jorizzo, who performed a PIMA/SEE sponsored surgery expedition to Christmas Island in 2010 said: “I was delighted to return to Christmas Island. With PIMA’s help, health care on Christmas Island has dramatically improved. I am so happy to contribute to international efforts to cure blindness, especially on Christmas Island. Working with my partner, Paul Imperia, and my friends from the USA and Kiribati is particularly special. We look forward to returning soon.”
More Eye Care Help Needed
By Dr. Paul Imperia, MD
Those familiar with PIMA’s work in the remote Pacific islands of Christmas, Washington and Fanning know there is an extreme need and shortage of basic health care. When it comes to eye care, complete absence is a more accurate description.
Many of the island’s population, young and old, suffer from preventable visual disability or blindness. Young patients may not be able to attend school or grow independent from their parents. Adult patients may lose the ability to work and contribute to their family.
When blindness occurs, the patient often needs a full time caregiver, taking yet another family member from useful employment. At worse, the blind patient is marginalized from their family and society and has a significantly decreased lifespan.
For the last several years, Pacific Islands Medical Aid (PIMA) has brought optometrists and ophthalmologists to the islands to decrease this burden of visual impairment. With PIMA and Surgical Eye Expedition’s (SEE) help, volunteers have supplied examinations, medications, eyeglasses and sight-restoring surgery. In some cases, patients with complex problems have been transported to Hawaii for treatment.
My partner in ophthalmology practice, Paul Jorizzo, MD and I have visited Christmas Island many times for it’s world-class fly fishing. We have always found the local population to be warm and welcoming despite their limited resources. They seem to project a happiness that is in stark contrast to their poverty and are deserving and grateful for whatever help they receive.
When we learned of PIMA’s need for volunteer eye surgeons, we viewed it as a golden opportunity to give back to a people we had grown very fond of.
Our team consisted of Dr. Jorizzo and me, Max Lentfer, our operating room director at home and Andrew Lee, a medical student. We were also joined by Dr. Rababe from the island of Tarawa, a native of Kiribati, who is in training to be the nation’s first ophthalmologist. It was very heartening to see that the government is putting resources in to training native doctors to serve their population.
Dr. Kautu, the Kiribati Minister Health, equivalent to our surgeon general, was also in attendance and everyone was much honored to have him visit.
Patients came from all the villages on Christmas Island and patients from Washington and Fanning islands were transported by ship, living in the communal medical maneaba… a several week commitment away from home.
Our initial task was to screen over 100 patients and determine their needs. Many were given medications and/or eyeglasses. There were a good number who needed surgery and a good number of these were profoundly blind from white, bilateral cataracts. A total of 35 surgeries were performed with so significant complications. The nurses at the local hospital worked very hard alongside us for long hours to complete this task and we are grateful for their help and dedication.
At the beginning of the week, several patients could be seen literally staggering around the medical compound clinging to their caregivers. At the end of the week, these same patients could be seen walking around independently with a smile on their faces. We were all very satisfied and look forward to returning.
Thanks PIMA and Carlton Smith for all your support to make this intervention happen.
Paul S. Imperia, MD, Ophthalmologist
Medical Eye Center
Medford, Oregon USA