“It’s Magical” – Halimata’s Story

By Awa Dieng  - March 24, 2017
Halimata the day after trichiasis surgery, free of pain for the first time in years. (Photo: Awa Dieng)

“My name is Halimata,” she said. I put my hand into hers and told her she was a beautiful woman. She beamed with joy and squeezed my hand.

Halimata is 75 years old and has been blind for many years due to trachoma. The day before we met she had surgery on both of her eyelids to correct her trichiasis, the painful condition caused by trachoma in which the eyelashes turn inward and scrape the eyeball. Today her son and daughter have brought her to the health center in the town of Samandini, Burkina Faso, for her follow-up check.

Before the surgery, Halimata always kept her eyes closed to ease the pain. Now she was all smiles as the surgeon led her to the consultation room, her positive spirit lifting us all.

Perched on an exam chair, she waited patiently as the surgeon removed the dressings from her eyes. How clean and smooth her eyelids were! They hardly looked as if they had been operated on. With a sterile piece of gauze, the surgeon gently wiped away the residue of antibiotic ointment from the surgery.

The surgeon asked Halimata to open her eyes and look down. This was not an easy task since Halimata was so used to keeping them closed. Her eyes twitched as she struggled to hold them open.

The surgeon examined the results of his work and was very satisfied. His supervisor did the same and was equally satisfied. Halimata’s eyelashes no longer touched her eyes, and the margins of her eyelids were turned slightly outward, showing the slight overcorrection recommended by global guidelines. From a medical standpoint, it was a successful surgery.

Now came the big test: How was Halimata feeling after so many years of pain?

“How do your eyes feel?” the surgeon asked her in Mooré, the language spoken in Samandini. “Do you feel any pain or discomfort?”

Halimata shook her hands and head. “I feel absolutely nothing,” she said. “It’s magical.”

Halimata was still a blind woman, but she no longer had the excruciating pain of trichiasis. She was immensely relieved, and so were her son and daughter.

The surgeon gave Halimata’s children instructions for caring for their mother’s eyes at home. She could already resume her daily activities, but in a week she would need to return to the health center for a second follow-up check. In a few weeks her stitches would be resorbed by her body and her healing would be complete.

In line with World Health Organization recommendations, the surgeon will visit Halimata in three to six months to evaluate the final outcome of her surgery, seeing whether the positive results were maintained and whether any complications have developed. This quality-of-care check will benefit both Halimata and the surgeon: If complications are detected, Halimata will be referred for treatment, and the surgeon will gain valuable feedback that will help him continue to improve his performance.

Millions of people like Halimata live with trachomatous trichiasis, the long-term consequence of repeated trachoma infections. The friction of the eyelashes on the cornea is what causes vision loss and, ultimately, irreversible blindness.

Halimata was already blind when we met her, but we were still able to relieve the constant, severe pain she faced. For trichiasis patients who are not yet blind, the simple eyelid surgery that Halimata had not only ends daily pain and suffering, but preserves remaining sight.

Through village-based, quality-focused surgery campaigns like the one that reached Halimata, the USAID-funded MMDP Project is bringing trichiasis sufferers relief, joy, and a new chance at life. Some might even call it magic.

Awa Dieng is Regional Program Manager for the MMDP Project. She met Halimata while observing a trichiasis surgery campaign in Burkina Faso’s Hauts Bassins region in February 2017. Funded by USAID and managed by Helen Keller International, the MMDP Project helps countries provide treatment and care for people suffering from the debilitating effects of trachoma and lymphatic filariasis.