Ambulance fitted to restore eyesight in Togo, West Africa

Published on Wednesday, 30 July 2014 22:28 - Written by COSHANDRA DILLARD cdillard@tylerpaper.com

East Texas Medical Center officials Wednesday handed over the keys to an ambulance to Lewis Swann, founder of faith-based organization Believe and See.

The ambulance is repurposed for a mobile cataract clinic in the West African country of Togo.

The gift will help the group continue restoring sight to the thousands of people, including children, who are blinded by cataracts.

“In a few months, that teal and white unit we’re all used to seeing will become a common site in a new territory — Togo, West Africa,” said Ron Schwartz, ETMC vice president of ETMC EMS.

ETMC officials donated the vehicle after learning about Believe and See’s mission. Employees also donated more than 400 pairs of sunglasses to be used by patients, post surgery.

During a news conference, ETMC President and Chief Executive Officer Elmer Ellis said the gift was an extension of the service they provide.

“We strive to bring lifesaving emergency care to East Texans no matter where they choose to live,” Ellis said. “We cover about 15,000 square miles. Even for a rural area, we are blessed to have access to medical care — a wealth of services compared to people in other parts of the world.”

Some people in rural areas of the French-speaking country have no access to doctors or medical care. Malnutrition, contaminated water and dehydration are contributing factors to the high rates of cataracts in the country.

According to the organization’s literature, 30,000 children and adults are blinded by cataracts.

Believe and See restores the sight of 100 people each month.

Swann, 29, said he’s not sure what the future holds, but he wants to continue serving a large number of people.

“Whether it’s small or multi-nation, we certainly want to treat 1,000-plus patients a year,” he said.

Swann founded the organization about two years ago after serving as a media liaison and public relations administrator for Mercy Ships.

Today, the organization has a staff of 18, including four eye surgeons. When he learned of the affliction of poor rural residents and that there was little knowledge about it, he was eager to fulfill a need.

“God placed me there,” Swann said. “It’s where Mercy Ships led me, but the reason that I’m happy to be there is because nobody’s heard about it. … You don’t see a lot of people going to that country. There’s just not that many people there doing a service.”

The Believe and See team also educates Togo residents about modern agriculture.

“We train 30 farming experts a year in modern agriculture,” Swann said. “The idea is it’s 10 times more productive than traditional farming. So you eliminate malnutrition; you eliminate cataracts, to an extent. But further on you give them an economy they’ve never had before.”

Swann said the new economy could help the people pay for surgeries in the future. To learn more about Believe and See, visit believeandsee.org.