Dr. John Nkurikiye, center, visiting Medford from Rwanda, observes an eye surgery performed by Dr. Pete Spitellie, right, with help from nurse Roger Cranston. Nkurikiye hopes to use his new skills and connections made around the world to create a center to fight blindness in his country. - Bob Pennell

Rwandan doctor sets sights high

A physician from Africa is visiting Medford to learn skills he hopes will help him start a teaching hospital and an eye bank in his home country.

John Nkurikiye (Nah-koori-KOO-yea) is one of just 10 ophthalmologists in Rwanda, a country the size of Oregon's Harney County that's home to some 10 million people. He's in Medford to watch and learn from Dr. Matt Oliva and other physicians at the Medical Eye Center.

Nkurikiye connected with Oliva through an organization called Himalayan Cataract Project, a nonprofit group that offers sight-restoring surgery for people in Nepal, India, Pakistan and other developing countries. Oliva sits on HCP's board of directors, and Nkurikiye contacted them about starting a teaching hospital. HCP arranged for him to spend time observing treatment centers in India, Nepal and the United States.

"Our goal is to help people like John be successful in their own countries," Oliva said.

Nkurikiye, 43, has spent the past 11 months "traveling around to see how it's done elsewhere," he said. "I want to learn the whole process of eye banking so when I get back we can start the first eye bank for Rwanda and the region."

Eye banks store tissue from the cornea, the clear, curved tissue at the front of the eye. Corneas can be transplanted to cure some of the most common forms of blindness that occur in less-developed countries.

Oliva said curing blindness is one of the most cost-effective of all medical interventions because each case of blindness really affects at least two people — one who can't see, and another who cares for the sightless man or woman.

Curing blindness allows two people to return to normal life. The formerly blind person can go back to work, and the caregiver, who often is a child, can return to school.

Nkurikiye wants to create a teaching hospital that will provide Rwanda with its own eye doctors.

"To be able to deal with the burden of blindness we need to have 50 eye surgeons," Nkurikiye said. "To get to those numbers we can't afford to send people (out of the country) for training. It's too expensive."

He envisions an eye center and teaching hospital that will treat patients who have the ability to pay as well as those who can't afford treatment. Those who can pay will subsidize the others.

He said the new eye hospital will be another step toward re-establishing a civil society in Rwanda, which has slowly been rebuilding since 1994. As many as 1 million people died in about three months of ethnic violence when a radical faction of the Hutu people sought out and killed Tutsi people for no other reason than their ethnicity.

Nkurikiye served as a doctor with the army that drove out the killers. He said the slaughter was expedited by government-issued identity cards that listed each person's ethnicity, a practice that was started by the Belgian colonial government decades earlier.

"That's how they could kill a million people in three months," he said.

As part of the reconciliation process, people now leave their farms one day a month to work together building roads and bridges as a way of "helping people learn to live together again after what happened," he said.

Nkurikiye is scheduled to leave Medford Wednesday and fly to Ethiopia for an international conference on ophthalmology. He said his travels have given him hope that the teaching hospital can be built within his five-year projection.

"All these trips I have been in touch with people who are willing to come and help us and to come and work with our patients," he said.

Reach reporter Bill Kettler at 776-4492 or e-mail:

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