Community level health workers play one of the most critical roles in our campaign. They wear many hats and go by many different names, but they are almost always the first medical professionals to interact with any patient, whether they work within a hospital or lead door-to-door screening. Their responsibilities include explaining care to the patient and addressing any fears about the surgery. Often times, the conversation they have with the patient is the reason the patient does — or doesn’t — feel comfortable going to the hospital, so it’s critical that we work with them on extensive training and preparation for the field.
In The Gambia, our most recent expansion country in West Africa, Community Ophthalmic Nurses have been playing this role for years. For some, decades. Four of the main ones that work with our local partner, Sheikh Zayed Regional Eye Care Centre, lead the regular outreach within their communities and sat down with us to share more about their backgrounds, their own stories and their work to help end preventable blindness.
Aisatou Bah, 26, is one of two nurses at Serekunda Health Centre. The center functions as a remote care facility for the Sheikh Zayed health network and works closely with patients and neighbours from the surrounding community on eye health issues. When she was younger, she recognised the importance of nurses in her community. But she also noticed something else. There simply were not nearly enough medical professionals as were needed to provide care, both eye health and otherwise. Aisatou decided to pursue a nursing programme near Banjul to fulfill a single wish:
“I wanted to help my people.”
Two years after completing her studies through Shiekh Zayed’s training programme in ophthalmic care, Aisatou is now one of the first community level workers for HelpMeSee’s campaign in The Gambia.
At 24, Lamin Camara is not much younger than his friend Aisatou, but his own interest in eye care began two generations ahead of him. About ten years ago, his grandmother developed glaucoma, another eye condition that has far fewer treatments than cataracts. No permanent cure for it exists yet, and Lamin’s grandmother passed away in 2008. Lamin decided to dedicate his own career to help those who, like his grandmother, were affected by eye diseases but could hopefully be treated.
Not surprisingly, his favorite part of the job is working with patients. He studied at Sheikh Zayed’s as well and for the last year and a half has worked at the Brufut Health Centre in the southern region of The Gambia. Leaders of the country’s eye health programme already consider him one of The Gambia’s most promising young leaders in public health.
Soon he will be busy screening patients with HelpMeSee’s Reach app, but when he’s not working he enjoys volleyball and soccer. Especially soccer. (His favorite team is Real Madrid.)
One of the most experienced nurses is Gibril Tamba, a 49 year old native Gambian from the town of Madiana. Most of the homes in the area do not have electricity. He’s composed and serious — ready to get back to the work that he knows takes so much time and dedication.
For the last 22 years, he has worked as a Community Ophthalmic Nurse.
To get to work, Gibril rides his motorbike for an hour each way over roads usually only accessible by 4-wheel drive. This time of year during the rainy season, most of them are flooded, but he still makes it to work on time every day.
Gibril currently works alongside Aisatou as one of two nurses at Serekunda Health Centre, where they will be the first contact for patients with eye health problems that approach care. They will also lead direct outreach to identify and inform patients in need of the existing care provided by our local parter. Together, their responsibilities will expand to include a range of patient screening steps that are part of HelpMeSee’s approach and includes the HelpMeSee Reach smartphone app to track need on a geographic level.
The eldest and most traditional of the four initial nurses is Arokey Ceesay, who had held the job for two decades. Dressed in traditional Gambian clothes, Arokey has a quiet presence that still holds the room’s attention. She grew up as a native Gambian in Sanyang. At 50, she’s the only one of the four who does not have much experience with a smartphone — now commonplace in West Africa — but she learns quickly when we introduce her to one running HelpMeSee’s Reach app for patient screening.
For the past twenty years Arokey has worked with the blind, which was part of the reason she became a nurse in the first place. She wanted to serve as a health worker, and what better way to make an impact than help restore sight to those who have lost it?
Today she works as the Community Ophthalmic Nurse at the Fagikunda Health Centre, one of the community clinics connected to Sheikh Zayed’s main hospital centre in Banjul.