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Restoring Vision in South Sudan: Dispatch From the Duk Lost Boys Clinic

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Dr. Roger Furlong screens patients at the Duk Lost Boys Clinic; Photograph by Jordan Campbell

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Dr. Geoff Tabin at the Duk Lost Boys Clinic, South Sudan

Jordan Campbell (pictured below) is on a medical mission to the remote and underserved region of Duk Payuel in South Sudan, the world’s newest country. He is assisting two ophthalmic surgeons—Dr. Geoff Tabin and Dr. Alan Crandall, both game-changers in the way eye care is being delivered in the developing world. Their work begins in the Duk Lost Boys Clinic, which was started by John Dau, one of the original Lost Boys of Sudan and a National Geographic Emerging Explorer. Campbell is a Marmot Ambassador Athlete based in Colorado.

DAY 1

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Flying over South Sudan’s vast and desolate landscape, brush fires blaze thousands of feet below us, wafting smoke over the wings of our eight-person aircraft. The fires are lit intentionally by the numerous indigenous tribes to fertilize the parched, unforgiving soil. But the sight of plumes coming from the ground also makes me nervous. Despite South Sudan’s recent independence in July 2011, the world’s newest country has been plagued by 40 years of civil war with their northern neighbors in Sudan, and the situation between the now two countries remains tenuous.

Seated next to me are two ophthalmic surgeons—Dr. Geoff Tabin and Dr. Alan Crandall, both game-changers in how eye care is being delivered in the developing world. If Africa is a gaping hole for the blind and underserved, South Sudan is ground-zero.

We descend through the smoky haze and touch down lightly on a dirt airstrip in the remote outpost of Duk Payuel. We’re greeted by dozens of Dinka villagers, many hopeful that our medical team can restore vision to their family members and friends. Towering over all of them at 6’8″ and dressed smartly in a pressed white shirt and slacks is John Dau, one of the original Lost Boys of Sudan and the founder of the Duk Lost Boys Clinic, which treats everything from malaria and leprosy to cobra bites.

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Tabin (center), Crandall (blue scrubs), and Dau (right) working in the clinic

Tabin and Crandall have teamed up with Dau to bring eye-care to the Jonglei state in South Sudan for the first time. Their goal is to treat as many cases of unnecessary cataract blindness—which is rampant throughout the region—in a bold, five-day mission.

For Dau, the Lost Boys Clinic represents his life’s work. In 1987, then 14-year-old Dau fled Duk Payuel when the northern Khartoum army invaded. He and thousands of other young boys fled on a dangerous journey to Ethiopia and Kenya, where they banded together in refugee camps for more than a decade. Dau ultimately relocated to the U.S. and made his new home in Syracuse, New York. In 2003, Dau returned to his original home in Duk for the first time, where his vision for the clinic was born.

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Dr. Geoff Tabin and a patient at the Duk Lost Boys Clinic, South Sudan

Day 2

It’s day two and the sun sizzles at high noon. Tabin and Crandall have already performed 26 back-to-back surgeries today in a sweaty, makeshift operating room. Swarms of Dinka, Nuer, and other tribe members cue-up outside the clinic—some have walked as many as four days for their chance to see again. The doctor duo hopes to perform more than 250 cataract surgeries before they fly back to Utah where they both lead international eye care programs (www.cureblindness.org and www.moraneyecenter.org).

Tomorrow the doctors will begin removing bandages from the surgeries they performed the day before. Virtually all of the patients will see clearly or for the first time in years. And all of us will watch as smiles and tears of joy erupt on the patients’ faces.

Still, dozens will be turned away with the short time allotted. But for Tabin, Crandall, and Dau, remarkable social entrepreneurs that have descended on Duk Payuel, it’s a start for greater days ahead.