Dr. Helena Ndume is sometimes called a miracle doctor. That’s because she’s returned the gift of sight to more than 30,000 people in her home country of Namibia, in southwestern Africa, by treating cataracts. She’s in Fort Worth this week, where she’ll train local doctors to do surgeries overseas.
Cataracts are almost always extractable. For many in Namibia in Southwestern Africa, where access to medical care is limited, having cataract surgery is the difference between work, and a life of poverty. Every time Ndume removes patients’ eye bandages after surgery, she literally sees lives change.
“They can’t just believe it,” she says. “And then they stand up and they start screaming and they’re dancing and they’re ululating. No money can pay for the joy of someone who’s been blind for so many years and suddenly they can see.”
She’s spending the day at Fort Worth-based eye care company Alcon, training ophthalmologists who want to do medical missions in developing nations. She says they’ll need to learn how to operate without the advanced equipment they rely on in American clinics.
“Here, it is high-tech, you are comfortable, you have everything,” Ndume says. “And I always say that a proper surgeon is a surgeon who can do anything even under difficult circumstances.”
This is a life Helena Ndume never imagined. As a child in the '60s, her country was occupied by apartheid South Africa and descending into a decades-long struggle for independence. At 15, she left by foot for a refugee camp in Zambia.
“The bullets were flying at home,” she says. “The schools were demonstrating against this unfair education. They were shooting, they were arresting.”
Ndume finished high school in Gambia…went to Europe for college and med school. She had to give up on dreams of a career in fashion. Independent Namibia would need doctors, she was told, not fashion designers. Since then, she’s been running eye camps across the country, helping thousands to see again.
“It was the international community paying for my education, and I could never think of sitting in a private practice and making money when people were going blind,” she says. “I was helped by other people to go to help and give back.”
Last year, Ndume was awarded the United Nation’s Nelson Mandela prize for humanitarian efforts. She says it was humbling, and that the credit should be shared with everyone who helps her do her work.