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Thursday, August 06, 2009

Darkness Lifting

For seven years, Genevieve has been the eyes for others. She gave birth to three children – two boys separated by a girl – all with cataracts in both eyes, preventing them from seeing anything but the most subtle shifts in light and shadow. Going anywhere has been an exercise in patience and strength for Genevieve – tying one-year-old Ricardo on her back with a piece of brightly-patterned cloth, taking seven-year-old Alexis by the hand, holding three-year-old Nadege by the arm – then guiding them up steps, through thresholds, and around potholes. For years, her eyes have been vigilant guards against danger – coal stoves sitting in the corners of rooms, containers of liquid that could scald or poison, and all the daily threats that could harm her children. “Because of the blindness, I must be with them all the day,” Genevieve said. “Even if they are playing, I have to watch them. In everything, I have to be right beside them.” Genevieve and her husband tried to get help for their children. They visited the hospital in Glazoue, the nearest city, but they had no means to pay for the expensive cataract surgeries. The physical toll of her children’s blindness was heavy for Genevieve to bear. But the emotional strain was even more difficult, for Genevieve wondered what would become of her children in a country that makes no accommodations for blindness. Genevieve also struggled spiritually. “Why is it that all my children are blind?” she thought constantly. “What did I do to God for this to happen?” To make matters even worse, she heard people cruelly whisper, “It must be witchcraft or a curse – because three blind children in one family is too unlucky.” Then hope surfaced when a man in their village offered to help. André Affedjou, a civil servant in Benin, and his friends sometimes assist people who cannot afford medical treatment. When they heard about Genevieve and her children, their hearts were touched. “Usually we find one blind child in one family or one handicapped child in one family, but three blind children for one family was too much,” André said. He knew that if they did not get help, they would have a very bleak future and would be dependent on others for their entire lives. André said, “They will not have a chance to go to school because there is no blind school in the village. But if they receive their sight, it will be a great happiness.”
André heard about Mercy Ships on the radio and arranged for transportation to Cotonou and for housing for the family. They came to the ship the week before Easter – three happy children, laughing, using their fingers to “see” the toys the nurses handed them, and mimicking the foreign noises of the ship. Genevieve looked pensive – daring to hope, yet unsure that her solution had finally arrived.
“I hope that the children will recover their sight,” Genevieve said, “and they can go to school. I will be so happy if my children can see my face and my husband’s face.”
Kim Strauss, Eye Team Coordinator and wife of eye surgeon Dr. Glenn Strauss, said that the children arrived in very good health – good enough to be operated on immediately. Often, children have to be nursed for a few days before their operations, usually due to dehydration or fevers or infections. She gave Genevieve credit for the children’s good health and spirits. “She is such a wonderful mother,” said Kim. “The kids are so happy. Even when they were blind, they were such happy little children.” And their innate joy was evident in their infectious laughter, their giggling chatter, and their dimpled smiles that wandered the room without focus. They seemed to be designed to experience life and happiness to the fullest extent.
The expectation for a successful surgery was highest for three-year-old Nadege. She hadn’t been blind long enough for permanent damage, yet her eyes were developed enough for the new lens to fit well. For congenital cataract procedures, children over the age of seven often have permanent damage because the optic nerve never develops, and the brain adjusts to blindness. This was a worry especially for Alexis. For baby Ricardo, the concern was that his eyes were not developed enough for the procedure and that the lens wouldn’t fit correctly. The children all received their operations on the Thursday before Easter and spent a night with their eyes patched. The next morning, the surgeons, operating room nurses, and Kim assembled for the exciting moment – it was time to remove the bandages. First they removed Nadege’s. “When we got the bandages off,” Kim recalls, smiling, “she grabbed the doll we were holding in front of her and said, ‘Bebe, bebe.’ So she knew what it was, and we knew she could see.” Next was Alexis, who they feared wouldn’t see as well. They put the toys on the floor. He looked around, walked straight up to Dr.Glenn, and took something he had in his hand. Finally, they removed Ricardo’s bandages, and then promptly returned him to his mother’s arms to calm him. For some time, he lay with his eyes squeezed shut. Finally he opened one eye and glanced around. Suddenly he saw something on his mother’s shirt, and he reached up and grabbed it. “When he did that, we knew he could see, too,” Kim says. “It’s just a miracle! Even to Dr. Glenn, to see their vision come back is still a miracle. For him, every operation is a prayer that their sight will improve, for them to be able to function, to get around and get into things, like kids are supposed to do. And when it happens, it’s just fantastic.” Now Genevieve’s hopes are realized. Her children will see her face, and they will know their father by sight. They will go to school. She will see them holding hands and walking outside to play on their own. The burden she carried so faithfully and lovingly is gone! The darkness has lifted!
“I am so happy,” Genevieve simply says. “I am so happy, I cannot tell you how happy I am.”
Story by: Carmen Radley
Edited by: IOC Editing Team
Photos by: Esther Biney and Debra Bell

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