At the tender age of two, Precious Kadee has already began exhibiting the traits of a young, independent lady. She will not allow anyone to baby her, and takes to her heels every time someone tries to carry her. Her desire for independence may be a common trait among toddlers her age, but Precious is not your ordinary toddler.
She was born with a condition known as Bilateral Congenital Cataracts in both eyes, a kind of blindness that affects children. Though treatable, the condition can cause total blindness if not rectified early.
“A few weeks after birth, I took Precious out to bask in the sun. While out there, I realised she was struggling to open her eyes. On checking keenly, I noticed a growth in both her eyes. I was shocked,” her 21-year-old mother Lucy Adhiambo narrates.
The mother of one says the revelation was a huge shock to her small family, as she never anticipated that she would give birth to a child with blindness – nobody does. Desperate to have her daughter’s sight restored, she and her husband took the baby for a check-up at the Coast General Hospital, the same hospital where Precious was born.
“I was told that she was too young for surgery, so I went back home. When Precious was six months old, I took her back but was this time told to wait until she got to five years,” Lucy says.
By then, Lucy was constantly arguing with her husband, who believed the blindness was a genetic condition from Lucy’s side of the family.
Anxious to save her daughter and marriage, Lucy took it upon herself to seek medical attention, whatever the cost would be. One day she woke up, tied her baby to her back and walked the 6KM to Lions Medical Centre in Mombasa, in search of answers.
“They reviewed Precious and told me to raise 50,000 shillings for surgery to reverse the blindness in each eye. I was shattered. How was I, a class seven dropout, going to raise that amount of money without a job when my husband was a casual labourer?” she remembers thinking.
Around the same time, people began to speak about Precious, spewing all manner of theories about the cause of the baby’s blindness. Some said it was witchcraft, while others comforted her and asked her to accept Precious’ condition as the will of God.
Not one to give up Lucy went back to her rural home to seek for assistance from traditional healers, upon the advice from her grandmother. Despite seeing several healers over a period of one year, nothing worked. Instead, the growths in Precious’ eyes continued to enlarge. Defeated, she returned to Mombasa to try and figure out her next steps.
“I was in a dilemma. I could not go out to search for casual jobs because there was no one to leave Precious with. I also couldn’t leave her alone,” she says.
Then in July this year, on a day Lucy recalls as beginning with a bright, sunny morning, seemingly full of promise, a friend informed her that the Safaricom Foundation was planning to hold a free medical camp in Shanzu, Mombasa. Once again, her hope was reignited. She took Precious to Shanzu to try her luck one more time.
“It took long for us to be attended to due to the long queues but when we eventually saw the doctor, I was amazed when I was told her eyesight could be restored at no cost to me. I was informed that Safaricom Foundation would cater for all costs,” she says with a smile.
In late August, Precious was admitted to the PCEA Kikuyu Hospital’s Eye Unit. It was a moment of mixed feelings for her mother. While on one hand she was happy at the possibility of her only child gaining her sight, she was on the other hand terrified at the thought of the operation going wrong.
“For the one and a half hours she was in theatre, I was very nervous. One of the nurses saw me pacing around and she told me to calm down, Precious would be fine,” Lucy remembers.
There is not much available data on this condition. However, according to the East African Journal of Ophthalmology 2008, there are 1.5 million blind children in the world. About 13 percent of the cases of blindness in children are attributed to cataracts, while 75 percent of the causes of blindness in children are preventable and the cases curable. But reversing the blindness is expensive, and often out of reach of many parents especially in developing countries. It is estimated that restoring the sight of one blind child may be equivalent to restoring the sight of 10 elderly adults.
Dr. Daniel Mundia is a Paediatric Ophthalmologist at PCEA Kikuyu Hospital, and the man who operated on Precious to restore her sight.
“Congenital cataracts are very common in children and form about a third of all operations we perform on children here. There are many things that could happen in the womb to cause the cataracts. For instance the mother could be suffering from a disease like rubella, which is very common, and pass this to the baby. There is also the risk of radiation or medication that can cause defective lens development during pregnancy, or it could be genetic,” Dr. Mundia explains.
Precious was one of 2,600 patients who received free medical care during the Safaricom Foundation medical camp. She was also one of four patients who received referrals to specialist hospitals for further treatment after the medical camp.
“When the bandages were taken off after the operation, Precious looked around and was able to see for the first time in her life. I was so happy, my baby could finally see,” says Lucy, remembering the moments that followed. “Now, all she wants to do is walk on her own. She won’t let anybody carry her, she enjoys moving around and playing.”
Childhood blindness presents an enormous challenge to the developing world in terms of morbidity and economic loss. Since education is often more expensive for children with special needs, many of them lag behind their peers, and receive far fewer opportunities for social and economic growth and development.
“We advise parents to ensure children who suffer from this condition undergo surgery before the age of five. After that, we can remove the cataracts but the child will have lost their vision and also possibly not develop as well as he or she should mentally,” says Dr. Mundia.
Precious will still need to undergo check-ups at the hospital every three months until she reaches the age of 10. For now though, she is happy to enjoy the gift of sight, a gift that has come with much relief for her family.
“The operation has really changed our lives. We are now happier as a family and I can even leave Precious with a caretaker while I search for a job. I never thought my baby would be able to see, and now that she can, I am grateful,” she concludes, smiling fondly at her baby.