Onboard the Phelophepa Train of Hope Part 2
Following her exploits treating people in the South African town of Vryburg, third year optometry student, Samantha Davidson continues her story volunteering her services on board the Phelophepa train of hope.
Over the weekend the train moved to a smaller town called Delareyville, this was where we would spend our last week testing. Despite the two towns only being located 85km between each other, the train journey took 24 hour – so between 2pm on the Saturday and 4pm on the Sunday we were confined to the train. It was difficult being kept on the train all day, but just before cabin fever set in we arrived in Delareyville wherupon we had the opportunity to have a look around. Delareyville was a small town, but located near the station were a couple of shops, a SPAR, a petrol station and would you believe it a KFC. Whereas Vryburg was relatively built up, Delareyville was dustier with wide roads that everyone walked over – paying not attention to cars. In some ways it felt very old fashioned, almost as if you had stepped back in time.
In both towns we saw a mix of very old and very young patients. Some were healthy, but there were also some very sick patients. There were patients who could speak excellent English, who took pride in showing off their language skills and those who could only speak their local languages like Afrikaans or Setswana.
Without the help of the local workers who helped to translate, the testing would not have been possible. Every one of them showed such care and compassion to the patients, helping the elderly and reassuring patients who would have to visit hospital. They all picked up the routine of the eye tests extremely quickly and used their own initiative when asking questions or helping point to the chart. All of these little things helped make our job a great deal easier especially when there was a language barrier.
I saw a lady in Delareyville who was very nervous at the start of the test because she told me she was worried that she wasn’t going to be able to read down the chart. However, she surprised herself when she managed to read every letter unaided. She was so proud of herself that she was laughing out loud and calling over her friends to let them know. It was these little moments that made me realise how important the work was that I was doing and how much it means to the patients. It made up for all the times in which you were left feeling helpless and upset because you couldn’t do anything for them, but yet they came to the train with so much hope.
Testing children was another challenge I had to face on the spot, myself and the other students from Glasgow had less practice testing children’s eyes. However, it appeared to come naturally to us all and all the theory we had learned fell into place.
On the train I learnt a great deal that will help me in my career. The number of patients who we saw with cataracts ranging from early changes to extremely mature was unbelievable. I was told before I went that I would be overwhelmed but I did not expect it to be a problem to such a scale! I tested a lady with albinism and children with severe squints. All of these cases presented a new and different challenge that I know will be useful to me in my future career.
Working on the train really made me appreciate the healthcare system we have in place in the UK. We often take the NHS for granted. However, when you are seeing patients who are blind due to cataracts that are going to have to wait 2 years for surgery and only have the one eye operated on, it truly makes you value the healthcare available to us in the UK so readily.
The cost of a pair of glasses on the train was £1.50 and 20p for eye drops, it was heart breaking when people admitted after the eye test that they didn’t have enough money for glasses and some people couldn’t afford the mere 20p for eye drops. In the future I would like to work with Transnet to help raise money. For me, the issue was not with the equipment which did need updating, it was the fact that despite the eye test, the patient simply couldn’t afford to buy the glasses at the end of the day.
On the Train of Hope, it was not only the Eye Clinic that provided a much needed service. The other teams all worked extremely hard to provide a level of healthcare that was effective but also reached a large number of people.
I would like to thank the supervisors in the Eye Clinic: Londeka, Arthur and Beki for supporting us when we needed it but also for making sure we all had fun despite the volume of work. Without them, the eye clinic on the train would not run as smoothly as it does.
I would like to thank the other students who we worked with on the train for making us feel so at home in their country. We leaned on each other when we needed it and always tried to help each other out whenever possible.
A big thank you is required to the translators in Vryburg and Delareyville. They worked endlessly to not only help the patients but to help us. Their work ethic, patience and intuition made our jobs one hundred times easier. If it wasn’t for their willingness the Train of Hope would struggle to operate. We all made great friendships and I loved working with them all.
And lastly I would like to thank Professor Niall Strang from Glasgow Caledonian University and Vision Express for without their help and support I would never have had the opportunity to go and make a difference to the lives of those less fortunate than ourselves. I am looking forward to continuing my career with the backing of Vision Express having learned so much onboard the Phelophepa Train of Hope.