Eye Opening

George Washington student volunteers his time improving vision in Ghana.

April 28, 2010

By Jennifer Price

GW freshman Andrew Pangilinan has always loved to travel.

A first generation American, Mr. Pangilinan has gone on safaris in Kenya and Tanzania, climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, toured Morocco and Egypt and visited his parents’ hometowns in the Philippines.

But after choosing to major in exercise science with aspirations of becoming an orthopedic surgeon, Mr. Pangilinan decided to combine his two passions and travel to Ghana for 10 days in January to help restore vision and prevent blindness in hundreds of people living in poverty.

Mr. Pangilinan, 19, traveled as part of a team for Unite for Sight, a non-profit organization headquartered in New Haven, Conn. that empowers communities worldwide to improve eye health and eliminate preventable blindness. In addition to working in Ghana, Unite for Sight also has volunteer opportunities in India and Honduras.

Mr. Pangilinan said he chose to volunteer with Unite for Sight because he thought it was a unique organization.

“Most charity organizations target the bigger things like malaria and HIV so blindness often gets overlooked,” he says.

While 36 million people worldwide are blind, about 80 percent of blindness is preventable, according to Unite for Sight. Those that are blind in Africa are four times more likely to die, and 60 percent to 80 percent of children who become blind die within one to two years.

“Eyesight is so easy to help and fix, but no one really pays attention to it,” says Mr. Pangilinan.

Each morning, Mr. Pangilinan would jump into a van with 10 other volunteers and drive to villages, some of which were three hours away.

“We would get there, and they’d already be waiting for us,” he said.

The volunteers conducted visual acuity tests on about 100 patients a day and handed out prescription glasses and eye drops. A Ghanaian nurse and optometrist would oversee the care and evaluate whether a patient needed eye surgery. All of Unite for Sight’s services are free to patients.

“They were so happy to get care. Most of the people had never seen an eye doctor before because an eye doctor can be as far as 10 hours away,” he says.

If a patient needed surgery, the Unite for Sight team would return to the village a few days later to pick up the individual and drive them to Ghana’s capital, Accra, where there was an eye clinic and surgery center.

Because there’s such a high need, about 40 cataract surgeries are performed each day – often two at a time. Each surgery only took about 20 minutes.

“It’s so different than here in the states. They don’t have as many supplies or advanced anesthesia. The lights flickered a lot, and one of the lights even went out during surgery,” says Mr. Pangilinan.

In order to go on the trip, Mr. Pangilinan had to complete an online anatomy course about the eye. He was required to raise $1,600 in donations, which went towards the eye surgeries, and get 600 prescription glasses. To better understand the eye, he shadowed an ophthalmologist in his hometown of Vero Beach, Fl. for three days before leaving for Ghana.

Mr. Pangilinan plans to do pro-bono work in the developing world once he completes medical school and becomes an orthopedic surgeon. Until then, he plans to go to Haiti in the summer to volunteer in the earthquake relief efforts.

“I want to help the underserved as much as I can,” he said.

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