May 2013

 

IN OTHER NEWS

 

Book shares adventures in mission work


by Erin L. Boyle EyeWorld Senior Staff Writer
 

Aisha Simjee, MD

 

Dr. Simjee operates on a patient in Ghana. Source: Aisha Simjee, MD

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isha Simjee

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MD, had 12 corneas in a box. She had hand-carried the cornea transplants, donated by Tissue Banks International, to Armenia. There, she would assist with ophthalmic volunteer work, using the corneas in waiting recipients. After carrying the box throughout the journey, including a stop in Switzerland, she disembarked from the plane.

In Armenia, customs officials were confused. She said they were unsure what to do with her and her box of eyes. But the inevitable conclusion seemed to be that they would hold her for some time, putting the eyes in danger of losing their viability. When officials stepped out of the room, leaving her alone with the corneas, Dr. Simjee took action.

She ran.

"I took the box and ran out of the building and into a taxi," she said in a telephone interview. "I told them, 'Take me to this hospital.' As soon as I reached the hospitalthank God it wasn't too far away from the airportI gave that box to the hospital administrator, who was an ophthalmologist, and said, 'This is what I brought, hand-carried from the United States, and this has eyes, put it in the refrigerator. And a customs officer is going to follow me.' He was shocked. But he took it and no one followed me. I think they gave up." Dr. Simjee, Orange, Calif., outlines this story, and many others, in her new book, Hope in Sight: One Doctor's Quest to Restore Eyesight and Dignity to the World's Poor. The book shares her story from birth as a Burmese refugee in India in 1944 to more than 25 medical missions around the word.

Life story

An early traumatic experience inspired Dr. Simjee's interest in ophthalmology. When she was 7 years old, she was diagnosed with a serious eye disease. "Ever since I was a little girl, I wanted to become an eye doctor because I had trachoma," she said in the interview. "I was always thankful that I am not blind. I saw many people in Africa, South America, and Indian reservations blind with trachoma. But I walked out of it. I have to wear glasses, but that's fine. I see. I see beautifully." She is from a family where no one, male or female, had gone beyond high school. Her sisters and brother were married at a young age, she said, but she had decided at an equally young age that this would not be her destiny. "I was 17 years old, and my parents arranged my marriage, and I said 'No, I don't want to get married. If you marry me, I'm going to run away.' Where would I have run? But that was my 17-year-old mentality. They let me alone. They didn't force me," she said.

Dr. Simjee entered Rangoon University in Burma for premed studies in 1962. As political instability occurred around her, a nearby United States Information Services Library fascinated her. There, she read about the Western world and was increasingly intrigued by it.

"I would devour periodicals such as Time magazine with a dictionary at my elbow. The stories I read of Western women excelling in science and world affairs fanned my desire to be one of those women," she wrote in the book. "As I read, I became more familiar with the political and cultural landscape of America. But with the military takeover, the library was burned to the ground."

At 26, armed with a medical degree, Dr. Simjee left her family and homeland for the United States, where she focused her residency and fellowship in ophthalmology. After entering private practice in California, she decided it was time to give back.

Volunteer work

The book traces Dr. Simjee's many adventures in mission work treating patients in countries including Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Ethiopia, with each chapter set in a different country.

She details how she has worked without adequate instrumentation, without enough funds, and in areas devastated by natural disasters. In 2010, she stayed in a tent city set up by actor Sean Penn and philanthropist Diane Jenkins' J/P Haitian Relief Organization in Haiti, three months after the massive earthquake there. Because of the extent of the medical need and devastation, Dr. Simjee performed medicine unrelated to ophthalmology. "I delivered babies[I was an] ophthalmologist working on the opposite end of the body. I did episiotomies and I sutured it all with eyelid sutures because that's all I had, sutures for the eyelids. But I did it," she said. "You have to be very versatile [in mission work]."

Dr. Simjee said she has learned many lessons in her 35 years as an ophthalmologist, including in her volunteer work around the world.

"Life is short, time is precious," she said. "Do the best you can because most people, if not all, will appreciate what you are doing. And don't get discouraged by people who are not satisfied with what you can do for them. Keep your courage up, and keep working."

Hope in Sight is available for purchase at Barnes & Noble.

Editors' note: Dr. Simjee wrote Hope in Sight.

Contact information

Simjee: eyesimdad@yahoo.com

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