War or no war, Israeli MDs save eyesight in Congo

Eye From Zion medical team left Israel on cusp of war to provide 102 sight-saving surgeries in Kinshasa, one of the most dangerous cities in central Africa.

Eye from Zion founder Nati Marcus with patients outside the Kinshasa hospital.

Eye from Zion founder Nati Marcus with patients outside the Kinshasa hospital.

A team of Israeli ophthalmologists and support staff left for a humanitarian mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo on July 2, six days before Operation Protective Edge began. They performed 102 complex sight-saving eye surgeries – many of them on children and using general anesthesia – at the public hospital in Kinshasa.

Eye from Zion founder Nati Marcus says that when news started reaching them about the war directly affecting nearly half the citizens back home in Israel, the delegation considered cutting short their stay but decided to remain in the Central African country until July 11 as planned, in order to treat all the patients who were depending on their knowhow.

“The Israeli medical team heard such warm gratitude from government ministers who came in person to thank us, and we heard it from the local medical team and from people in the streets,” Marcus tells ISRAEL21c. “I was proud to be an Israeli in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.”

Eye From Zion medical manager Dr. Modi Naftali says the decision to stay was difficult. “It is really not easy to concentrate on your mission when you know your country is burning and you don’t know the direction things will go,” says the ophthalmologist, who practices at Rambam Healthcare Campus in Haifa and Padeh Medical Center (Poriya Hospital) near Tiberias.

“One of our nurses [Tzira Botrite, from Soroka University Medical Center in Beersheva] was very concerned for her family at home. They kept sending WhatsApp messages whenever they had to run to the bomb shelter.”  She also knew that many of the wounded soldiers would be treated at Soroka.

However, says Naftali, “We had a mission to complete.”

The Congo delegation led by Marcus also included Dr. Fani Segev from Kfar Saba’s Meir Medical Center, Prof. Guy Ben-Simon from Sheba Medical Center-Tel Hashomer, and Moshe Turiski of the LR Group, one of the main sponsors. They brought along half a ton of medical supplies and medications.

Before leaving Kinshasa, Ben-Simon arranged for two Congolese patients to get prosthetic eyes from Israel, and for a baby to come to Israel for follow-up care after a cancerous tumor was removed from her eye. Marcus speaks emotionally about an 11-year-old girl, Rebeka, who had been blinded by congenital cataracts and now can see again thanks to Eye From Zion.

Rebeka after her surgery.

Rebeka after her surgery with Dr. Segev.

The Israelis initially had been hesitant to go because Kinshasa is known to be highly dangerous. They went only with the assurance of police protection in the hospital.

Marcus says, “When we came back, we found Israel is dangerous now too! Our plane had to circle four times because of rockets targeting Ben-Gurion Airport. We were able to land after Iron Dome did its job.”

Founded in 2007, Eye from Zion provides free eye surgeries in places including Vietnam, Kyrgyzstan, Nepal, Micronesia, Myanmar and Ethiopia. They also train local medical personnel on ophthalmological procedures.

The organization works in partnership with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), MASHAV (Israel’s international aid agency), the Israeli Foreign Ministry and the LR Group.

For more information, see www.eyefromzion.com

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About Abigail Klein Leichman

Abigail Klein Leichman is a writer and associate editor at ISRAEL21c. Prior to moving to Israel in 2007, she was a specialty writer and copy editor at a daily newspaper in New Jersey and has freelanced for a variety of newspapers and periodicals since 1984.