Tuesday, 09 August 2022

Phone call that changed my life

TWO years ago, after a school reunion, I got a phone call that changed my life.

TWO years ago, after a school reunion, I got a phone call that changed my life.

Within a fortnight I was in India at an eye hospital watching cataract surgery.

It was simply amazing — sight was being restored in less than five minutes to each desperately poor person, allowing them to work or study and to be independent.

I was at the Akhand Jyoti Eye Hospital in Bihar, a state in northern India, with my old school pal Lucy Mathen.

Lucy went into television and worked on Newsround before giving it up it up to train as an ophthalmologist.

A decade ago, she founded Second Sight, a charity that restores sight to the poorest in India.

It has outstripped organisations 10 times its size and income. The Bihar hospital alone cured 50,000 blind people in 2011 and aims to cure 100,000 a year by 2015.

I felt very privileged to be asked to accompany Lucy to India and visit the hospital she has helped to build up.

I wondered why she had asked me. How could I, a primary school teacher, be of any use to this amazing project?

I didn’t wait long for the answer. The next day I was standing in front of a class of hospital workers ranging from operating theatre assistants to receptionists. They had a medical exam coming up.

In India medical exams are in English. My role was, and continues to be, English teaching. In the process, I soon learned quite a bit about eyes. There are three reasons a person in Bihar who is blind from cataracts remains so:

l There is no eye surgeon who can carry out the operation.

l They cannot travel to the hospital on their own and there is no one who can take them.

l They cannot afford to pay for the operation.

Lucy’s hospital has managed to get enough Indian surgeons to work permanently in rural Bihar so patients are not turned away because of a lack of doctors.

The hospital brings in the blind from the remotest areas, with teams travelling in small wooden boats, by bullock cart and on foot.

Second Sight pays for the surgery.

The success of the hospital means it is growing fast and needs staff. There is a waiting list of ophthalmologists wanting to work there but not enough other medical and non-medical staff. This brings me to my late introduction to football at the age of 60. An exciting girls’ education programme has arisen from a chance game of football played by Lucy with some village girls near the hospital.

The girls in Bihar are usually married by 15 as their parents can’t afford to keep them.

The hospital needed workers, the girls needed futures, so the Akhand Jyoti Football Academy was born.

The girls board at the hospital, are educated and have a chance to become professional footballers like their coach. They can also have jobs at the hospital. Already one girl has been selected to play for India. Some older girls are training to become doctors. I was dragged on to the pitch and have never looked back.

Another dragged on to the pitch is Permi Jhooti, the girl who inspired the film Bend It Like Beckham.

Like me, Permi is a Second Sight volunteer and says: “When I saw those 14-year-old girls I was transported back to my earlier self…. I bet those girls dream bigger than they ever imagined they could or would and I am excited about the women they will grow up to become.”

Although I have played football with the girls, my contribution is not football, where my skills, alas, are not that good. Instead, I co-ordinate the English teaching programme. Volunteers go out to Bihar, usually in pairs, and stay for about a month at the hospital to teach English.

This wonderful project keeps growing and changing, from temple eye hospital to the largest eye hospital in the state, from a chance game of football to a girls’ football academy, from training for boys and girls to a degree in optometry and ophthalmic techniques. All this in less than five years!

Lucy has made an uplifting film, Junction For Having Fun, which tells the extraordinary story of how a chance game of football with village girls transformed a corner of India’s poorest state and the eye hospital at the heart of the community.

The screenings will be at the Christ Church Centre, Reading Road, Henley, next Friday (January 25) at 7.30pm and the following day at Woodclyffe Hall in Wargrave at 8pm.

Former Newsround presenter John Craven will give a talk at the first event.

Each night, there will be a free Indian finger buffet provided by Haweli of Twyford, plus a bar, raffle and auction.

Every £20 raised will fund the cataract operation of a blind child and not a penny will be taken out for the cost of administration or salaries as Second Sight is staffed by volunteer professionals.

For tickets (Henley), call (01491) 871643 or email jill@parkway.co.uk or (Wargrave) call 0118 940 2674 or email sheilabrockelbank@mail.com

NEXT week in Henley and Wargrave, there will be two fund-raising screenings of a film made by Lucy Mathen, founder of the Second Sight charity, which is restoring the sight of tens of thousands of people in her native India. Here, her old school friend Sheila Brockelbank, from Wargrave, describes the “amazing” work with which she helps.

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