BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan -- "Providing children vision gives them a better chance at life in Afghanistan, "said Maj. Marcus Neuffer, an ophthalmologist assigned to the Craig Joint Theater Hospital at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan.
Here if children cannot see to perform normal daily tasks, there is a possibility they will be left behind in their village to fend for themselves. Neuffer's primary job here is to take care of patients with traumatic eye injuries, but when he is not busy in the operation room, Neuffer and his technician, Airman 1st Class Chellbie Gonzales, spend their spare time providing humanitarian support to local nationals. "At home we mainly perform refractive surgery and provide specialty eye care," Neuffer said.
Gonzales serves as Neuffer's assistant both here and at their home base, Keesler Air Force Base, Miss. They are both serving their first deployment and humanitarian effort.
Every week they go to the Korean hospital to treat patients from off base.
"The eye injuries and conditions here are not common in the Unites States because the environment, health care system and patient demographics are different," Neuffer said.
Neuffer is currently the only doctor at Bagram Airfield who is qualified to operate on eyes. If a local patient comes to one of the humanitarian hospitals and is need of an eye surgery, they are brought to Craig Joint Theater Hospital. So far Neuffer has operated on a dozen Afghan patients. "I have performed cataract surgery on three children here so far; a 12-month-old boy, a six-year-old girl and an eight-year-old boy," Neuffer said. "A child's eye sight stops developing at about (age) eight. If I can perform surgery before then, with glasses, the children should be able to regain enough vision to perform daily tasks." Cataracts are typically seen in older adults and severely limit vision. In the U.S., when found in children, cataracts are usually removed within the first two months of life. "Unfortunately the Afghan children don't have as good of health care here, and some are left blind their whole life," Gonzales said. "It's hard to tell exactly how old each patient is because the lack of medical care and records." After the surgery, Gonzales schedules follow-up appointments for one day, one week and one month out to track the patient's progress, she said. On the second appointment glasses are issued. "My job is very rewarding here," Gonzales said. "There's something special about seeing the children recognize objects and interact with the world." Neuffer said so far the outcome of these procedures on children has been good. For one eight-year-old-boy, it's been an awakening. Months ago, he picked up a land mine while playing outside, which then exploded in his hands, resulting in cataracts beside other injuries. "When I first met him, his father led him by the hand because he could only see light," Neuffer said. "A week after his surgery when the bandages came off, he put on glasses I gave him, and he was able to see our faces. He was so excited he could see again he jumped up, pushed his family out of the way and ran straight into a wall. It was a happy but comical moment for us."
Neuffer said he joined the Air Force to help those in need. "Someday when this place is safer, I hope to establish a program that will help everyone," Neuffer said. "For now my goal is to give children as much vision as possible. Having vision allows people to work and contribute to make their society better."