Israeli doctors give the gift of sight

Ayana, 3, is one of some 3,000 Ethiopians who have been cured of eye disease by an Israeli medical team

Morris Kahn and Dafna Jackson with Ayana (photo credit: ALLON HANANIA)
Morris Kahn and Dafna Jackson with Ayana
(photo credit: ALLON HANANIA)
JINKA, ETHIOPIA – Seven years ago, opthalmologist Dr. Itay Ben-Zion and photographer Allon Hanania informed Israeli philanthropist Morris Kahn that many residents of Jinka and the Omo Valley in southern Ethiopia suffer from debilitating eye diseases such as cataracts and trachoma.
In fact, they said, the rate of blindness from cataracts in this region is among the world’s highest.
Kahn, 87, a successful entrepreneur who immigrated to Israel with his wife and two sons from South Africa in 1956, was amazed to learn that a relatively simple medical procedure was able to restore a person’s eyesight.
“That is one of the greatest gifts you can give!” he said. “When you restore a person’s sight, you are saving two lives – the life of the person who regained their sight and the life of the person who helped them survive.”
In honor of his 80th birthday, Kahn gave himself a very special present. He decided to establish an eye clinic in Jinka, making it possible for a medical team and volunteers from Israel to fly there once a year. At the clinic, they perform as many operations as possible, giving patients the gift of vision, while at the same time training a local medical team of doctors and nurses to perform the procedures independently for the rest of the year.
IN MARCH this year, I was invited to join Kahn and the Israeli medical delegation to Ethiopia. A few days before leaving, we gave some thought to postponing our trip for family reasons, but on that same day Kahn received a photograph from the advance team, which had arrived in Jinka two weeks earlier in order to get organized and schedule the patients. It was a picture of a three-year-old girl named Ayana, from one of the local tribes. She had been born blind and was brought to the clinic after an exhausting three-day journey.
The photograph of the little girl in her mother’s arms really touched Kahn. He looked at little Ayana and said, “I want to be there when this little girl gains her sight.
Despite everything and because of everything, we must get going.”
After a seven-hour flight, we drove on dirt roads for another five hours. We finally arrived in Jinka toward evening, with high hopes for the next day and the meeting with little Ayana, whose life and the life of her mother were about to change beyond recognition.
All night long, I tried to imagine what you feel when you open your eyes and see for the first time.
Morning finally dawned, and with it came our meeting with Ayana, the little girl for whom we had come to Ethiopia. Her mother, a beautiful woman with a pure soul, tried to explain to us that for three years she had held the girl in her arms all day every day, to protect her from any harm and to give her a sense of security.
The anesthesia that preceded the cataract surgery was the most difficult part. We needed to separate Ayana from her mother for several hours for the first time in her life.
The smell of her mother and her mother’s touch were what had always given her a sense of security. The unavoidable separation broke my heart.
The nurse took Ayana with great care, but in less than 30 seconds, she started crying bitterly and it was heartrending. I asked to try to soothe her: I wrapped my arms around her and held her very tight, so that she would feel my body heat and my heartbeat. I sang her a song in Hebrew that has always soothed me, hoping she would feel surrounded by love. I tried to give her the feeling that she would soon receive a wonderful gift – the gift of sight – and that these moments of pain would turn into unbridled joy, making this difficult time worth it.
The medical team and the volunteers amazed me. Each one of them attempted to do everything in their power to soothe Ayana, and after 40 long minutes, we succeeded, and Dr. Ben-Zion started the surgery.
The operating room fell silent. I felt like each and every one of us was praying to their God that the procedure would be successful. During surgery, the volunteers shared the mother’s concerns about bringing her daughter to Jinka. Although the team had trouble communicating with her because of the language barrier, they needed to win her trust, to make her understand that she was bringing her daughter to a safe place, to people who have their best interests at heart. Her uncertainty had been so great that the volunteers had not been at all sure they would be able to operate on the little girl until the moment the two of them had got on the truck.
The operation went well, and all that remained was to wait for the next day when the team would remove the bandages.
Meanwhile, the doctors and volunteers continued to operate on more and more patients, treating each one with exceptional dedication and care.
In the morning, we went to the clinic to be there when they removed Ayana’s bandages.
The tension was palpable – we all stood around her, deeply moved and in prayer.
Ayana opened her eyes very slowly, and we immediately saw that she could distinguish light. Slowly she started to stroke her mother’s face and smile. Emotions boiled over and there wasn’t a dry eye in the room.
Several hours later, this little girl, who up until the day before had been totally blind, was able to see everyone and everything around her.
A short time later, Ayana started to walk for the first time in her life – and to laugh the uninhibited laugh of a child of three.
She started to run around the clinic powered by excitement, and it was impossible to stop her. This little girl, who had previously spent most of her time in her mother’s arms and hadn’t even crawled, closed the gaps forced upon her within a day, something no less than a miracle.
I was overwhelmed by emotion and needed to go outside to breathe some fresh air. I could not stop crying. I tried to write to my sister in Jerusalem to describe the power of the experience that filled my body and soul, but I couldn’t find the words to convey this sensation. At that moment, I understood what a special privilege and gift I had been given.
Our lives are our message to the world, and in everything we do, the more meaningful it is, the stronger our message will be.
Morris Kahn thought he was giving himself a gift, but he actually gave us all an enormous gift – the privilege to be part of this delegation. Not one of us returned home unchanged; we weren’t the same as we were when we came to Jinka.
ALTOGETHER, MORE than 3,000 Ethiopians have had their sight restored by the Israeli team in Jinka, in a project sponsored by Kahn.
Kahn lives his life in a special way, as his sister Jeanette Hersch described on his return.
“Ayana is just a drop in the ocean of the wonderful work that Morrie does. In my book, he is such a mensch; it’s the highest accolade I can give him,” she said. “This year I was particularly touched by the story he brought back from Jinka. Even though he has been doing it for years, this time he seemed even more imbued by the delight of seeing Ayana’s face when she was able to see her mother.”
Harsh criticism of Israel around the world is growing stronger. At the same time, the wonderful acts of generous Israelis around the world are multiplying too. I have been surrounded by people who have something valuable to give this world, and I know that their influence will always be important.
Everyone makes a unique contribution – and the Jinka Eye Project reflects the true, beautiful face of Israel.
I felt obliged to share this unique project.
Israel has many exceptional citizens with a strong desire to volunteer and to do their part to better the world, and people such as Morris Kahn make it possible for their good deeds to materialize.
In Ethiopia, locals travel for days and nights in the hope of a better life. For me, a verse in Psalms summed up everything so well: “Who is the man who desires life, and loves many days, that he may see good? Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking guile. Depart from evil and do good; Seek peace and pursue it!”
Dafna Jackson is Morris Kahn’s personal assistant