SALT LAKE CITY — A medical team from the University of Utah's John A. Moran Eye Center has returned to Utah after performing hundreds of sight-saving surgeries in South Sudan.
But their mission wasn't just to restore the eyesight of their patients; it was also to encourage peace in the war-ravaged country.
For years, people in the region have been dealing with civil wars, tribal conflicts and an alarming rate of blindness.
The causes of blindness in the region vary, but the main reason people there suffer from a high rate of blindness is because basic eye care isn't available. Most suffer from cataracts, correctable with a quick surgery that isn't generally available in the country.
The conditions weren't ideal, and at times they were downright uncomfortable. The team from Utah lived in tents. It was more than 100 degrees in the operating room, and team members were being eaten by bugs, but they looked forward to helping people with their sight.
"We had everything from hedgehogs to toads to lizards, ants and giant wasps," said Charles Weber, an ophthalmologist with the Moran Eye center.
This was his first humanitarian trip. "They have been warring for generations, so peace between tribes within the country itself has been a challenge," he said.
People came from all over the country to be seen by these doctors. They walked for days, and once they reached the clinic, some waited day and night before being seen. For many it was their first visit with a doctor.
"It's an incredible feeling to take off someone's patch and they're seeing for the first time in 15 or 20 years in some cases," he said.
This was also the first humanitarian trip for Moran Eye Center technician Jacqueline Pullos. She helped screen patients and handed post-operative care.
She recalled a woman who sat around for days waiting to be seen. "She was actually somebody that we couldn't do surgery on," Pullos said. "She had a different type of blindness than what we were treating. It was heartbreaking."
The group wasn't there to only help restore sight to those they could help. They were also on a mission of peace.
"We offered to each of their warring tribes, 15 of their blind that we were sure we could cure," Pullos said.
Vision-restoring procedures were done in exchange for their attendance in a "peace circle."
"With their renewed eyesight and their renewed true vision on life and what it means to be a productive member of their tribe and society," Weber said.
"Now you can see that the Dinka don't have horns and the Nuer don't have tails," Pullos said. "They were people looking at other people for the first time, instead of people looking at tribes."
It was a chance to see life more clearly and perhaps work toward a common goal.
"To offer them something like vision, but also something like peace between them and their neighbors who have been fighting for generations," Weber said.
Doctors at the Moran Eye Center decided to focus on the region after meeting Sudan native John Dau. He was one of the "Lost Boys of Sudan," thousands of youngsters who fled en masse and lived on their own after they were orphaned by the civil war.
Three years ago, Dau built a clinic to help people in South Sudan. The team from the Moran Eye Center flew in with equipment and supplies for a weeklong spree of eye surgeries.
The group treated and restored vision to 250 people on their visit. This is the second year of a five-year initiative to help the blind in South Sudan.
"This is a very stoic culture in South Sudan," Weber said. "They usually don't have any kind of outward emotion, but to see them break out in song and hug us is pretty incredible."
Michael Yei, director of the Division of International Ophthalmology, was also part of the project. He posted updates of their trip on Facebook. He summed up the mission:
"I just watched two elder women, postsurgery, wander through the camp looking up at everything and occasionally stopping to hug each other," he wrote. "Sight is a precious thing."
Contributing: Viviane Vo-Duc