Meet the humanitarian doctors curing blindness from a boat

//Meet the humanitarian doctors curing blindness from a boat

A team of doctors from Israel and beyond sailed to Papua New Guinea to fix the eyes and teeth of locals, many of whom had never seen a doctor before.

Many of the villagers had never seen a doctor before. The doctors worked from an operating theater in the boat.

It’s hard to perform surgery on a boat. You have to cut between waves, and you have to do so very carefully. If you make a mistake, you can’t correct it with fancy equipment or send your patient to another hospital.

But dozens of volunteer doctors from around the world got used to these conditions. They recently sailed on an Australian boat turned operating theater to Papua New Guinea, where they conducted eye and dental surgery for free on villagers.

“A lot of doctors wanted to be part of this mission,” said Dr. Eva Platner, an eye doctor leading a team of Israeli doctors aboard the ship. Platner works at the Sheba Medical Center in the Israeli city of Tel Aviv. “Becoming a doctor, it’s kind of in your nature to want to help,” she said.

As the boat darted along the Papua New Guinea coastline, it probably seemed a bit like a spaceship to the locals, many of whom had never been aboard a ship, seen a foreigner, felt air conditioning or even used electric lights.

Still, many Papua New Guineans walked for hours through the roadless jungle to get to this mysterious boat. Sporadic visits from foreign aid missions like this one are their only access to modern medicine.

One patient in particular stands out to Platner. An old woman came in to her operating theater. Cataracts had made the woman blind in both eyes. She couldn’t see any of the strange things around her, but she could feel the lurch of the waves and hear voices speaking in foreign tongues. As Platner prepared for the surgery, the woman had an anxiety attack. She tried to get off the surgery bed.

“Just let me go. I want to go home!” Platner imagines the woman thinking at the time.

A local volunteer, a young woman in her 20s, came over. The volunteer held the woman’s hand and sang a lullaby in her language. The woman calmed down and laid back, and Platner was able to perform the surgery.

“I was very moved,” Platner said.

In Israel, like in most developed countries, people often catch and treat cataracts early. But even as doctors in developed countries learn more about eye health, many of the people in Papua New Guinea had never been to a doctor in their lives. Their cataracts were much farther along.

“It was like taking a rock out of the eye,” Platner remembered.

The doctors didn’t have a full suite of medical equipment aboard the ship, so they had to improvise. Eye doctors had to dig up 20-year-old procedures. Dentists had to pull teeth without X-rays.

“I kind of had to go back in time,” Platner said.

She and the other Israeli doctors performed more than 80 eye surgeries. When they didn’t have time to treat cataracts in both eyes, they treated just one eye, so the patient would have at least one seeing eye.

“I just wish we could do more, you know,” said Platner. “I wish those people could have better health care everyday, not just when ships come in.”

Still, the doctors knew they made a big difference to those they treated, said Platner’s husband, Ori Platner, who was a dentist aboard the ship. “It is the best feeling ever, really,” he told me.