By Avigayil Kadesh
The republic of Maldives, a Muslim island nation in the Indian Ocean, doesn't officially have diplomatic relations with Israel. But the two countries are nevertheless closely connected, and that is fortunate for Maldives citizens who recently benefited from the services of visiting Israeli ophthalmologists.
The mission took place in December, as Israeli humanitarian organization Eye From Zion teamed up with MASHAV, Israel's Agency for International Development Cooperation, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to train local medical personnel and treat patients in an innovative portable clinic. "The Maldives people are very pragmatic, and they see Israel as a source of know-how for their needs," says Dr. Yossi Baratz, medical advisor for MASHAV for the past 15 years. "That's where we come in."
MASHAV recently helped Maldives government agencies devise comprehensive emergency and disaster preparedness protocols, as the country is at great risk of tsunamis. That project culminated in two disaster drills over the past year. "When we were there for disaster emergency training, we discussed other areas of cooperation," says Baratz. When it became clear that an eye clinic would be of crucial help, arrangements for the trip were coordinated by the Israeli embassy in India under Ambassador Mark Sofer, and MASHAV took care of administrative and diplomatic arrangements.
"Eye clinics have been part of MASHAV's services for 50 years or so," he explains. "We send eye surgeons to developing countries with sophisticated equipment to operate on blind people and those in danger of going blind - as many as they can find. At one camp, such a team can operate on hundreds of people."
Eye From Zion
Since its founding in 2007, Eye From Zion has been the address MASHAV turns to for ophthalmologic missions. Founder and CEO Nati Marcus relates that some seven million people in developing nations are blind due to cataracts. "We have to do something as Israelis, as Jews," he says.
A volunteer team of four senior eye doctors from different Israeli hospitals, a surgical nurse and a medical technician set out for the Maldives prepared to treat 300 patients. Their eyesight-saving work is accomplished inside a unique traveling operating room that Marcus, an Israeli businessman, invented and patented. "I feel so good to come to places that are far from medical centers and in 20 minutes set up an operating room with the most modern equipment to treat people who cannot get medical services otherwise," says Marcus.
His air-conditioned portable surgical suite is designed so that just the head of the patient - who lies on a wheeled table - is inside in the sterile operating area. That way, people coming in soiled from working in the fields can be prepped for surgery in just six minutes. Strict protocols ensure a tight and efficient system. Trained volunteers take on routine duties, such as administering eye drops, to free up the healthcare professionals for more complicated tasks.
Training local personnel is key
"We moved from one island to another with the help of an ambulance boat supplied with emergency medical equipment that MASHAV, Magen David Adom and the JDC donated during the tsunami in 2009," says Marcus, who handled logistics during the two-week mission. "People who had been prescreened were waiting for us and the welcome was great."
Just as significant as helping people regain their eyesight, the Eye From Zion team trained local medical personnel to carry on this work. That is one of the organization's core goals, along with being goodwill ambassadors for the Jewish state. "With the cooperation of MASHAV, we usually to go the main hospital in the capital city of a developing nation and do a demonstration for doctors from all over the country - typically, a cornea transplant - and give lectures. Then we move with that local team to rural areas and we always work together."
Later this year, an Eye From Zion volunteer nurse will travel to Rwanda and train 18-year-olds at an orphanage how to process patients for its upcoming eye clinics in Burundi and Ethiopia. The organization also plans to treat patients in Nepal. "Some of the people are a little suspicious of Israelis," says Baratz. "But the patients are grateful wherever we go, and don't hesitate to say so."
During their stay, the president of the Maldives invited the Israeli team to his office, and a government minister accompanied them at all times. In fact, following the mission, the Maldives government made plans to travel to Israel to discuss renewing diplomatic ties. "This is the success of MASHAV," says Marcus.