We love meeting people who inspire us to help others. We caught up with ophthalmologist, Dr Polla le Roux, who volunteers as a surgeon for Flying for Life’s cataract surgery programme in the Vhembe province in Limpopo.
Please give us a brief explanation of what it is that an ophthalmologist does?
An ophthalmologist is a general practitioner (GP) who has specialised in eye surgery and eye diseases.
In your opinion, are there enough ophthalmologists in South Africa to cater for the demand?
This is difficult to answer as the distribution isn’t equal – there are far more ophthalmologists in cities. There’s a big need for ophthalmologists in rural areas – this is why what Flying for Life does is so important.
Is cataract removal a simple process, and how long does the procedure take?
Cataract surgery is one of the most common operations done, and in most cases, relatively simple. Every ophthalmologist is well-trained to do this operation. That said, because cataract surgery patients in rural areas tend to wait until they are almost blind until they come in for surgery, the procedure needs to be slightly adapted.
Why then, are so many people struggling with cataracts?
In rural areas, there is a need for more surgeons. In Venda, there is one cataract surgeon at the Elim hospital who has to serve approximately 1 million people. Then, in broader Limpopo, there’s a surgeon in the Polokwane state hospital who serves approximately 3 to 4 million people.
Why did you decide to become an ophthalmologist?
When I was a GP in rural hospital near Lydenburg, I would have to collate a list of all the cataract patients and other eye-related problems for the Bureau for the Prevention of Blindness. The Bureau for the Prevention of Blindness would come to perform surgeries at the hospital over a week-long period, and I would watch the surgeries being performed. In this way, I started doing cataract surgery in the local hospital.
What are some of the highlights of this profession for you?
There have been so many highlights! Teaching (I’ve been a professor at the University of Pretoria and the Steve Biko Academic Hospital), medical research, but then also that moment when a cataract patient who was formerly blind has their eye bandages removed after surgery.
What would you say to someone hoping to specialize as an ophthalmologist?
Start working in your local eye clinic and read up on different eye diseases, watch procedures on YouTube – get a feeling for the specialty, and then start preparing for your entrance exams.
Why did you decide to volunteer for Flying for Life?
I was invited by ophthalmologist Dr Taryn McAllister, who was one of the first South African doctors who started volunteering for with Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF). She got involved with MAF after hearing about it from her flying instructor, who was a pilot for MAF. When the need for arose for cataract surgery in Vhembe province in Limpopo, she got me involved.
What do you love about volunteering for Flying for Life? Any stories in particular that were significant to you?
The enthusiasm of everyone involved with Flying for Life is wonderful, and it is so easy to participate. There’s no pre-flight prep, everything is done for you – all you need to do is go to Lanseria Airport. Flying for Life and MAF are the crucial key for the success of this cataract surgery programme.
What would you say to other ophthalmologists wanting to help make a difference?
Come and join us! You needn’t come every month – the more doctors who join, the lighter the burden for the group. If we have more volunteer doctors, we can expand to other hospitals in the Vhembe district: there are 3 more hospitals where cataract operation programmes can be started. We could be tripling our cataract output if we had enough doctors.
What is your hope for South Africa?
I’m very positive about South Africa. It all has to do with working together for a common goal, and this common goal is the good health and education of every person in South Africa. We certainly have the privilege of helping others who have less than us. If every South Africa can help others who have less, we will prosper as a country.