The true sight to behold: a group of heroes assisted Sinoxolo to avoid blindness

A school manager, a Grahamstown optometrist, an East London ophthalmologist, and an American philanthropist have pooled their expertise, resources and care to save a Grahamstown teenager’s eyesight.

Sinoxolo Hala, 17, was – up until a year ago – a happy-go-lucky teenager with a passion for reading.

The Grade 11 Ntsika High School pupil first knew something was amiss in August last year when her right eye felt strange. Until then, she said she had been a normal and active teenager.

Davies asked East London ophthalmologist Dr Andrew Boliter for assistance.

A visit to Boliter’s East London eye clinic brought more bad news. The cornea of her left eye – the “good” eye – was already too thin to perform laser surgery. Even worse, the only way to restore sight in the right eye would be a cornea transplant.

Boliter told Dowdle that if she could source a cornea he would provide the surgery at no charge.

The race was on. But cornea donors in South Africa are few and far between. Patients can wait up to four years for a cornea to become available locally. A cornea transplant can potentially restore eyesight to thousands blinded by accident or disease. It has a 90% success rate. The Eyebank Foundation of South Africa estimates that over 5000 people are needlessly going blind due to lack of available corneas. The foundation’s chairman Richard Charton has described the situation in the country as a crisis.

Those who can afford it, import a cornea from abroad.

“I did not think Trevor could pull this one out of the bag,” said Dowdle.

But, a trip up the Kariega River in a boat that ran out of fuel proved to be a turning point for Sinoxolo. Davies says one of the men with him on that abortive trip was an American, Robert Austin who heads the corneal bank in Denver.

After hearing about Sinoxolo’s plight, he offered to donate a cornea for free.

A cornea from the United States usually costs in the vicinity of R30 000 before the cost of transport is added. The organisational nightmare of importing human tissue was left to Boliter’s personal assistant Belinda Diemer.

“The co-ordination and organisation took about two months from start to finish,” says Diemer.

The cornea has to be transported on ice and remains viable for only a few weeks after harvesting from the donor. So there is no room for error.

National Medical Supplies South Africa transported the cornea free of charge to East London.

Boliter declared it a healthy cornea with a high enough endothelial cell count to “take” in Sinoxolo’s eye and the operation was on. It involved cutting out the diseased cornea and stitching the donor cornea into place.

He makes it sound simple but the donation of his time, his surgical skill, the theatre time at his East London eye hospital, an anaesthetist and pre- and post-operative care was generous beyond belief, says Davies.

Although the operation was just a month ago, Boliter is confident the transplant will restore sight to Sinoxolo’s right eye.

“Things can go wrong down the line, like rejection of the graft, but corneal transplants in keratoconus have a 96% success rate. This one is looking good.”

Sinoxolo says she can already see blurry images out of the eye.

Boliter says it takes about a year before the stitches can be removed and sight properly restored.

Her other eye will, for now, be managed with spectacles and possibly corrective contact lenses.

Both Davies and Boliter are strong believers in offering their professional services for free to those who cannot pay.

To this end, Boliter and his partner in the East London Eye Centre, Dr Steve Cook, started the African Eye Foundation six years ago. The foundation facilitates the provision of humanitarian eye care to the Eastern Cape’s under-served.

“We do a lot of free surgery on patients we know are not going to get adequate care in the state sector.”

Davies says it was essential to provide eye care to the “total market” and not just to those who could afford it.

“It’s part of our professional responsibility to do so. Otherwise why are we here?”

Boliter and Davies shrug off the part they have played in Sinoxolo’s recovery and said nothing could have happened without the cornea.

“We cannot thank them enough for the donation,” said Davies.

Boliter said there was no culture of organ donation, particularly of corneas, in South Africa and this had to change.

“It won’t be easy. There are cultural taboos and religious prohibitions that make it very difficult for eye banks to recruit donors.”

He said it would require a massive and expensive awareness and education campaign that would have to be driven by the state health department.

“Until the health department steps in and makes it a priority and spends money to make sure that organ donation happens, it won’t improve.”

Sinoxolo’s spectacles mist up and she sobs quietly when she recalls how quickly everyone came to her aid.

“It was Sue, Belinda, Trevor and Dr Boliter who saved me. It was wonderful.”

She said she can now, once again, indulge her passion for reading.

“I love school, particularly maths and physical science. I think I want to become a physiotherapist, or perhaps a teacher. I am not yet sure. But now at least I can have hope.”