How the past few months have changed this ophthalmic clinical officer’s life

July 2020

Charles Chikwanda, an ophthalmic clinical officer trained by Orbis, works in a mining town in Zambia which borders the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). His town is particularly susceptible to coronavirus cases as it is on busy route between the countries, and people often spend a few days in the town before they are cleared to get into DRC.

So, when coronavirus came to Zambia, Charles’ role changed overnight.

Charles works at Kakoso First Level Hospital, which has 40 bed spaces and 61 staff who serve a population of over 120,000. His role as an ophthalmic clinical officer is to provide eye health care to his local community – helping to spot, treat and refer people with eye conditions.

Prior to being an ophthalmic clinical officer (OCO), Charles worked in a more general role for Zambia’s Ministry of Health, where he saw first-hand the need for more eye health services in Zambia. He told us: “[In] the area that I am, we lack [eye health] services. Before I became an OCO I was a general clinical officer - who are trained more like junior doctors. It was shocking me so much that we had to refer patients to go to another district for minor eye problems. ... We found that most of these cases were getting worse - they were even coming back to the facility and complaining that they couldn’t afford to travel to Kitwe or the next town, Chingola. It was making me angry and it was hurtful seeing people going blind because of things that we could prevent, if we had the skills and the knowledge.”

Charles checking a child's eyes prior to coronavirus

So when he had the opportunity to receive training sponsored by Orbis, as part of the Vision for Zambia project (funded by UK Aid Match), he jumped at the chance. Once he’d completed his training, he wasted no time in helping to establish an eye clinic in his district: “The training [from Orbis] started in 2017, and finished in 2018. The biggest hospital we have is just a first level hospital, that’s where we’ve created the space for an eye clinic.”

However, now facing the threat of coronavirus, his role has become even busier than it was before: “A lot of things have changed, because now we are trying to multitask! We want the usual activities in eye clinic to continue, and we also want to cooperate in the prevention and treatment of COVID-19. Usually in the eye clinic we have a lot of patients, now we are rescheduling the appointments with them. Those people who need maybe refraction, people who need minor surgeries - we give them later dates so that we don’t congest the facility. If it’s not busy, we help in the treatment and prevention of COVID-19.”

Whilst treating patients for coronavirus is very different to treating those with eye problems, Charles tells us that some of the skills he’s developed and learnt with Orbis are helping him in his new work: “[During] the training that I received from Orbis, one of the subjects/courses was to do with the infection prevention, and it really benefitted us. Most of the principals are the same, and we’re using the same principles when fighting coronavirus so the training has actually prepared us, even for the pandemic.”

Charles following his training with Orbis

He has also built on these skills and received local training on infection prevention specifically for coronavirus – which is helping him take on additional responsibilities during the pandemic: “I’m one of the people who, when there are contacts or suspects – I go and collect the samples, write the lab forms and send them to Ndola. If there’s no-one to escort the patient who’s confirmed positive, I will be there to do that. So it has changed a lot of things, because you find yourself in environments when you know, “this is not the area of my work.” But we’re doing it. Why? Because we want to fight the one common enemy – coronavirus.”

Whilst Charles continues his admirable work to combat both coronavirus and eye conditions, keeping his family safe is vital: “It’s a challenge [keeping myself and my family safe] because you know your family always need to be close to you. ... But we are trying – what I do is, when I reach home I make sure that I am not in contact with anyone, I need to change, I have to go and have a shower, make sure I’m not touching anything I was holding when I was outside.”

The dedication of people like Charles is incredible - who are continuing to treat urgent eye cases even in such difficult circumstances. You can help continue this vital work and help people like Charles catch up on the backlog of eye health cases created by coronavirus, by giving a gift today.

Help continue vital sight-saving work during the pandemic