Dedicating her life to treating blindness throughout the developing world, Dr. Ndume has performed more than 30,000 free cataract surgeries.

“I originally wanted to be a fashion designer.  But in Namibia, your elders tell you what you should do, and my elders told me I was to go into medicine.”  Her elders were right.  Dr. Helena Ndume, winner of the United Nation’s Nelson Mandela prize for performing more than 30,000 humanitarian cataract surgeries, shared this and many other touching stories about her exile from Namibia, unexpected path to a career in ophthalmology and volunteer work with SEE International during her recent visit to Alcon’s headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas.

One of the highlights during Dr. Ndume’s visit was the presentation she shard at a lunch and learn hosted by Alcon’s Corporate Giving department.  Nearly 100 associates filled the room to listen to her inspiring story.

Dr. Ndume’s story

Dr. Ndume grew up in her home country of Namibia, and as a child was witness to violence and war during the occupation by apartheid South Africa.  At 15, she was forced to flee to a refugee camp in Zambia and then finished high school in Gambia.  After being not-so-gently advised to become a doctor, she attended medical school in Germany, and soon after fell in love with the field of ophthalmology.

During medical school, Dr. Ndume joined a SEE International humanitarian expedition as a surgical volunteer and became “hooked” as she explains it.  “There’s no money in this world that can pay the joy of someone who was so blind for so many years and then suddenly they regain their vision.” Since her first experience with SEE International, Dr. Ndume has dedicated her life and career to treating blindness and low-vision, both in Namibia and throughout the developing world, performing more than 30,000 free cataract surgeries.

Enabling doctors to serve all populations

While visiting Fort Worth, Dr. Ndume also took time to visit Cornerstone Cataract Clinic, the only free cataract clinic of its kind in the United States.  The clinic is outfitted with a full state-of-the-art surgical suite, intraocular lenses (IOLs,) ophthalmic drops and other necessary products – all donated by Alcon’s Corporate Giving department.  The surgical procedures are performed by local surgeons, who volunteer their time for these “domestic” humanitarian expeditions.

The clinic is strikingly different from the operating rooms in which Dr. Ndume typically operates.  Although SEE International and Alcon support Dr. Ndume’s work with donations of IOLs and other surgical instruments, she is accustomed to working with little other technology – no machines – since there oftentimes isn’t electricity available.   Having worked in this environment for decades, and with patients who have advanced cataracts, she has become a master of manual small incision cataract surgery (MSICS,) a technique that many U.S. doctors don’t have much experience with.

In addition to her visit to Cornerstone and the lunch and learn, Dr. Ndume also trained a handful of local doctors in the MSICS technique.  “Most U.S. doctors, 95 percent of the operations they’ve done are with the machines,” said Daniel Gold, an ophthalmologist based in Palestine, Texas, who’s done medical missions all over the world. “They’re dependent on those machines.  There are cases with MSICS where you’ve got to put in stitches, and many of the doctors haven’t done much suturing,” Gold says.  After training with Dr. Ndume, the local doctors are now better prepared to deal with any kind of situation they might face in the OR, whether in the U.S. or on a humanitarian expedition in a developing country.