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Helping others see, she sharpens her own vision
Natalya Surmachevska enters data into her laptop at an eye care clinic in Ghana. To her left, another volunteer, two clinic employees and two patients are conversing. The plastic bags on the table contain eye glasses and medicine.
When Natalya Surmachevska flew from the United States to Ghana on July 18, she boarded the plane with two suitcases. One was full of her personal belongings. The other contained 590 pairs of eyeglasses—about 50 pounds’ worth—that she had bought at discount.

For the next month, Surmachevska, a Lehigh graduate student in sociology, lived in Accra and Kumasi, the West African country’s two largest cities, and volunteered at mobile eye care clinics located one to three hours’ driving time away.

The clinics, which are called outreaches, provide eye care and medications at a subsidized cost for patients. Surmachevska handed out the eyeglasses she had brought from home and also taught patients how to use the medications, especially the eye drops, that they had been prescribed.

“One of my biggest roles,” she said, “was just explaining to each patient, ‘Three times a day in both eyes.’ I would kneel down in front of every old lady and say, ‘You have to do this three times a day. And I would emphasize it and re-emphasize it.”

Surmachevska, who earned a bachelor’s degree from Lehigh in 2012 with majors in biology, international relations and economics, first traveled to Ghana in 2008 through the Global Citizenship program. She toured cocoa farms, attended lectures at universities and experienced Ghanaian culture through music and dance.

This time, she conducted research on behalf of Unite for Sight, the U.S.-based organization that works with locally owned and operated clinics that run the eye care outreaches. She also undertook a research project of her own.

“I took a lot of field notes when I was there. I mean I was taking notes on everything,” she said.

A high incidence of glaucoma

By the end of her time in Ghana, Surmachevska said, she had decided to focus her research on glaucoma and its prevalence and care. Glaucoma, a disorder typically associated with elevated fluid pressure in the eye, is a leading cause of blindness. Ghana has one of the world’s highest incidences of glaucoma.

“I just so happened to focus on glaucoma because that was really impactful,” said Surmachevska. “You could see really young people getting glaucoma and becoming blind by 35.”

The severity of glaucoma and its prevalence led Natalya to study the provision and continuation of glaucoma care and patients’ responses to the treatment instructions they were given.

Her interest in glaucoma was shared by an optometrist who asked Surmachevska to analyze data from 1,000 patients according to gender, age and location to determine the demographic prevalence of glaucoma among patients at her clinic in Kumasi. Surmachevska hopes that this study, along with the delivery of glaucoma care, will be the basis of her thesis.

Unite for Sight also works as a partner with clinics in Honduras and India. Surmachevska said she was placed in Ghana in part because of her previous visit to the country.

Visiting Ghana a second time made her think a lot about how the country had changed—and how she had changed—since her first visit.

“In terms of development Ghana has done so well,” she said, explaining that local businesses were blossoming and commerce appeared to flourish.

“I think now people are much more outgoing towards foreigners,” she said. “But that could also be a product of me being more open to talking to people. This time I was comfortable going out on my own and exploring the city, whereas before I would’ve been like, ‘I must take 20 people with me!’”

Surmachevska would love to return to Ghana in the future, but her focus will shift from eye care to maternal care. She plans on attending medical school and studying obstetrics and gynecology. When she visits Ghana again, she wants to be able to provide safe and affordable maternal care to Ghanaian women in need who find themselves in low-resource settings.