by John Cropsey, MedSend grant recipient and Serge ophthalmologist
A couple weeks back I received a call from a long-time missionary in Burundi, Barb Vibbert. She told me about a man named Matthieu who was somewhere in the range of 102 – 104 years old. He was a longtime friend of their family and they noted on a recent visit to his house that he was no longer seeing well. He was told in the capital city, Bujumbura, that he was “too old” to undergo surgery, and so he sat for two years at home with no hope of seeing again. Two weeks prior to the Vibbert’s visit, he had to blindly attend his wife’s burial.
Matthieu’s Burundian surname means “to run away” in Kirundi. This is because he was born during the events of World War I and his mother was fleeing for her life while pregnant with Mathew as the Germans fought to maintain control of central Africa.
His amazing story continues. Matthieu later came to hear about Jesus when the first Free Methodist missionary, Jonathan Wesley Haley, arrived in the early 1930’s. Haley was a Canadian who began his missionary career in South Africa and slowly made his way to Burundi overland. That was no small feat in those days. Matthieu is credited as being the very first Burundian to come to Christ through the ministry of JW Haley in 1935, making him the oldest Burundian Free Methodist.
The Vibberts brought Matthieu to our clinic and led him through the clinic short-cut “back door” given his feeble state.
It was my pleasure to find on Matthieu’s exam that he had cataracts, the leading cause of blindness in the world. It was good news because cataracts are a reversible cause of blindness. At the end of the exam, Matthieu’s son (Butoyi) and “garde du malade” (who is no spring chicken himself) told me he was also having some difficulty seeing. Sure enough, he also has advanced cataracts and needs surgery.
Matthieu’s surgeries went great despite the “gestational age” of his cataracts. Getting them out was like trying to deliver twin post-term behemoths!
As Matthieu was being assisted out of the operating theatre with the help of his son and my janitor, Aristide, Aristide stated, “Matthieu is my grandfather.” I attempt to clarify if he meant “grandfather” in the general African sense, like, he’s an old man from my village, or literally, his genetic grandfather. “Yes, my real grandfather.” If that’s the case, then the slightly less blind son of Matthieu must therefore be an uncle or something, so I asked Aristide. “Yes, that is my father,” was his matter-of-fact response.
At that point it was pretty cool to think I had three generations of Matthieu’s family standing in front of me in the theatre, but then it quickly hit me that one of my staff, who has worked for me for over a year, has let his grandfather sit at home in blindness (and now his father as well) without bringing them in for an examination. Okay, okay, the other option is that Aristide may not be overly confident in my skills yet and was going to wait another year or two before risking his relatives under the knife:) Either way, it is just another reminder of all the barriers there are to delivering care in a place that has never had access before, even for families with means and connections like Matthieu. Imagine what prevents the poorest from making it to us.
About John Cropsey
John opened Kibuye’s ophthalmology service in 2014. It has grown rapidly and draws on a population base of 15 million including Burundi, Eastern Congo and Western Tanzania. Given the overwhelming needs, plans are being made to construct a major regional eye care center at Kibuye which will become the headquarters of a larger eye care network, Hope Africa Eye Care.