Credit for this story goes to Aaron Wright of New Zealand. This is a real life story of a Fijian man who received eye surgery through the Beeve Foundation in Fiji.
Apensia is a crazy old man with a wonderful sense of humor, one of those unique individuals who stand out in a crowd no matter where they are. He came to Turtle Island having bypassed all the screening protocols. And although blind, he always stood very straight with a huge grin on his face, something that wasn’t “normal” for most patients who arrived at Turtle Island. But, as we came to realize, very little about Apensia was.
Apensia was 68 years young and had 20/400 vision in his right (best) eye when he was first examined on Turtle Island, Dr. Beeve performed a cataract extraction and an intraocular lens implant, and on his first day postoperative check Apensia had 20/80 vision in that eye. On the second day this improved to 20/40. When Apensia first stepped outside with his “new” eyes his first comment was a bawdry remark about all the beautiful young women he could now see! But the way he became blind is not that unusual. In February 2000 his vision began deteriorating, and the cataracts eventually took his sight from both eyes.
Blind, all he was able to do was stay inside the house. If he needed to go out, a family member had to assist him. Apensia heard about the Turtle Island clinic in June 2000. He described it as “an island where blind people could go, and come away with their sight cured.” And so he prayed, asking for God’s help to get him to Turtle Island.
At 4:00 a.m. on Monday, January 15, 2001, Apensia took a bus from his township of Ba to Lautoka. He had to reach the boat for Turtle Island by 6:00 a.m. On the boat, he joined his older brother, who was also traveling to Turtle Island for cataract surgery. Their journey took a little more than six hours in a roaring, heavy sea. During the voyage about three-fourths of the 87 passengers became violently ill with seasickness. Half of these passengers had varying degrees of blindness in both eyes.
That evening Apensia was billeted (logged) at the village of Matacawalevu. The next morning he was so excited about the prospect of having his sight restored that he forgot to eat breakfast. This turned out to be a good thing, because our anesthesiologist tells patients not to eat after midnight before their surgery.
The operation was a success, and Apensia provided a good deal of entertainment to both staff and patients during the time he was on the island. Of particular note were stories of his days in the Fijian Army. He proved to be a master storyteller and had a raft of tales ranging from the morose and morbid to the outrageous and hilarious. Talking to Apensia for more than 30 minutes was bad for your health. Your stomach muscles ached from laughter, and your face twitched relentlessly from the range of emotions his tales made you feel.
In particular, he told a series of stories about his time on Christmas Island starting in November 1958. He was based there with a multinational force comprised of Army and Navy personnel from America, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji. He described it as the most desolate place on the planet, and he was convinced it was haunted. There was nothing for the troops to do except patrol duty, observe “testing”, watch movies, and drink beer.
Apensia cast himself as the master beer connoisseur, which may well be true if his claims resemble anything near the truth. Beer was an alleged five cents per bottle, and there were frequent contests to try and drink $4 worth of beer in one sitting. Now, it doesn’t take an Einstein to work out that this represents 80 bottles of beer! One could be forgiven for thinking Apensia took some literary license in the telling of this story.
It was always a pleasure to see 10 to 20 people gathered around Apensia, as he entertained other patients and their caregivers with similar tales. Even worse-or more hilarious-were the stories of him being ordered to have a haircut by the unit’s regimental sergeant major, simply because he had a natural Afro!
If there was any justice in this world, Apensia would have been able to return to Turtle Island the next year for surgery on his other eye, so that he could see fully out of both eyes. Sadly, the reality is that the number of cases we saw each year continued to grow, and the majority of these patients are blind in both eyes. That means that we must focus on providing surgery for patients who have no vision. An operation in one of their eyes will provide them with independence and a previously denied quality of life, at the same time freeing a caregiver for other duties as the family and society see fit.
The Eye Department at Lautoka Hospital confirmed the above with some alarming statistics. The number of patients with cataracts is growing much more quickly than previously thought. At that time it was believed there were four foreign teams providing cataract operations in addition to the Lautoka Hospital’s surgeries, yet 20 percent of patients in need of operations were not able to have them because they lacked the resources. This percentage is annual so the growth in the number of patients with cataracts is an additional 20 percent per year on the total from the previous years, if these figures are anywhere near accurate.
Apensia would dearly love to have some vision restored in this other eye, and the team would love to fulfill his wish. The sad reality is that when Apensia returned to Turtle Island the following year for a 10-minute consultation, he was told that he would have to wait until the end of the week to see if there were any spare operating times. Given the trends from previous years, we knew what the outcome would be—but, man, it was great to see patients again being entertained by Apensia! We just hoped he saw as much value in it. Our team moved to Savusavu the following year, and we never knew what happened to him or so many other patients that were extra special in their own unique way.