Children of Cataract: Magda's Story

Co-authored by Nick Schonfeld.

Everyone loves a good plot twist. A sudden change of direction that turns one kind of story into another. A seemingly hopeless future suddenly filled with hope. I came across such a twist in Tanzania during my time with Sightsavers, and her name was Magdalena.

Magdalena was one of the 4 children I followed from their remote villages to Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania’s largest city, where they were treated for cataract. It was immediately clear that Magdalena was different from the others. Aside from having cataract in both eyes, she could not walk or crawl, and although it was not yet diagnosed, she seemed to have Down’s Syndrome.

Everything about Magdalena’s short life has been difficult. Her father left them before she was born. When her mother, Yulieta, went into labour, she had to walk herself to a local dispensary where she was told that the position of the baby in her womb was wrong, and that she had could not be delivered there. Yulieta had to hire a car, for which she had to borrow money, to take her to a larger hospital in Morogoro, where Magdalena was finally born by breech birth (a breech birth is where the baby is born ‘feet first’).

Yulieta immediately knew there was something wrong. Magdalena clearly had problems with her legs and her eyes bore the tell tale signs of bi-lateral cataract. When Yulieta pointed out the white dots in her daughters eyes to the nurses, they dismissed her concerns and sent her home. There, Magdalena continued to deteriorate, and Yulieta, already struggling to take care of her 2 other children, could neither afford to travel to hospital nor pay for the surgery to get rid of the cataracts in Magdalena’s eyes. She spent the last of her money on a little weight-gain medicine for her malnourished daughter.

No matter what she tried, Yulieta came up short, and eventually she had no choice but to give up. Magdalena was blind, could not play, could not move, could not be left alone. She required constant care, and Yulieta was no longer able to work. Most of the time she and Magdalena went without food, and it was only thanks to the kindness of her neighbours, that they did not succumb to starvation. Yulieta has accepted her and her daughter’s fate: a tough life made even tougher. Which made the fact that Magdalena was one of the happiest children I saw during my time in Tanzania all the more painful to watch.

Until now, Magdalena’s and Yulieta’s story read like so many others in poverty-stricken parts of the world. It had all the elements of a heart wrenching tale in which all signs pointed towards a depressing ending.

One day, Yulieta was sitting outside when she heard a car with a loudspeaker passing through the streets, letting the villagers know that a team of doctors would be coming to their area, and inviting them to bring anyone with eye problems for diagnosis. Yulieta took Magdalena and met with the doctors. Within ten minutes, she not only had her diagnosis, but was lucky enough to be included in a Sightsavers’ program that paid for the screenings and operations that Magdalena needed.

Just when things were looking up, fate threw one last punch at Magdalena. There was something wrong with the results of her pre-test blood, and Yulieta had to watch as the other 3 children were wheeled into the operating theater, and came out with their eyesight restored, while she and Magdalena were left behind.

Yulieta spent an agonising 2 days waiting to find out whether she would have to return to her village with Magdalena still blind; something she could not bear thinking about as she had been spurned by the villagers in the past: an impoverished single mother with a blind child and a husband who left her. Yulieta wanted to show the people in her village that she and Magdalena were worth ‘saving’, and that there was an organisation that had made the effort to help them. If Yulieta had not been sitting outside that day, if she had not heard that announcement, her life and that of Magdalena would have continued to spiral downward to an inevitable and painful end.

But now, thanks to a chance encounter with a man and a megaphone, Magdalena was operated on and is now able to see. Yulieta can now leave her with their neighbours while she goes out to try and find work. Undoubtedly, their lives will still be challenging, as Magdalena’s Down’s Syndrome means she will continue to need plenty of care and attention, but at least they have been given a break. At least there is hope again.

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