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The Bravest Little Boy in Eritrea, Africa

Story and photographs by Christopher Briscoe

A father stands outside closed hospital doors. Whenever they open, pushing against a pile of soiled gowns strewn on the worn linoleum floor, he peeks inside and peers down the long, crowded hallway, searching for his son. His little boy sits in an endless line of cataract patients, all bearing a hand written I.D. number taped to their foreheads. They are waiting for their turn on the operating table, already wearing blue medical gowns with dark plastic bags wrapped around their feet.

Most of them are older women. Occasionally, one of them leans over to comfort this young boy, to reassure him that he is in safe hands. His bewildered eyes track the blurred stream of activity, scanning for something familiar. He can just make out the interior of a nearby bathroom, its floors partially flooded. He knows that the faucets don’t work. A lidded plastic tub stands nearby, half full of water for hand washing.

The number on his forehead ties him to his diagnostic paperwork, but his name is Burukh.
You must be very still.

Time passes. Dr. Menghis Bairu, a volunteer now living in California, approaches the boy, kneels down in front of him, lowers his blue surgical mask, and begins speaking to him softly in Tigrigna. "What neighborhood are you from? - Really, me too! - What sports do you like? - Soccer? Me too!" The boy’s tense body relaxes as he gazes into the doctor’s kind eyes. A tentative smile lights up his face. Moments later, the head surgical nurse takes the boy's hand and leads him across the faded, wide red line painted on the floor that marks the entrance to the operating rooms. They step around discarded stained cotton balls that litter the floor and the boy is guided to climb up on one of two parallel operating tables.

Dr. Sadik, a native Ethiopian, is rolling his chair back and forth between the tables, operating on one patient, then another. Before each surgery is completed, nurses bring in and prepare the next patient.

The boy’s father has now joined his son. He’s wearing green scrubs, standing close, listening as James, the eye nurse, explains - with Menghis translating - that he will be inserting a needle behind the eye to paralyze the rectus muscle and that it will hurt, but only for a moment. “You must be very still,” he is told.

The boy listens but can’t imagine enduring a two-inch needle inserted into his eye socket. He dissolves into tears and leaves the operating room, weeping in his father’s arms. There’s only one other way to remove his congenital cataracts, by administering a general anesthetic. The boy and his father sit in the crowded hallway, pondering this option.

Something happens inside this little boy. Perhaps something that Menghis said sinks in. Suddenly, he tugs at the sleeve of a passing nurse and explains that he will take the needle… as long as it doesn’t hurt for very long. Minutes later he is back up on the table and his new best friend, Menghis, who is promising him an energy bar afterwards.

The boy sinks onto the operating table. A nurse drapes a sterile cloth over his little body. Nurse James and Menghis hold his head tightly while James inserts the needle alongside the eye. The boy flinchs for a moment – as if he’s been struck by a microscopic bolt of lightning – then his little body relaxes. Dr. Sadic joins the team, rolling over on his stool and adjusting his microscope. Menghis holds the boy’s hands, to comfort him and prevent any sudden, dangerous movements.

Dr. Sadik's eyes narrowed

Dr. Sadik’s eyes narrow as he peers through his microscope. His experienced gloved hands quickly go to work, cutting a 1 cm opening into the right eye and sucking out the opaque cataract. Moments later, he inserts a +19.00 lens. It is stronger than what this boys needs right now, but should be perfect in a few years and last for the foreseeable future.

The brave boy did not move. Dr. Sadik looked up, smiling over at Menghis then said, “That boy doesn’t need anesthesia. He’s got you.” The boy’s eye, now ready to heal itself without stitches, was pressure bandaged with a large ball of cotton.

The brave boy’s other eye opens. He doesn’t understand what has just happened, but he is happy to be helped off the table, still holding fast to Menghis, who gently lifts him up with his loving arms and carries him down the long hallway, crowded as always on both sides with waiting patients. The bravest boy was smiling now, his power bar held tightly in his little hand.

The bravest boy, with his mom and dad.

The brave boy’s other eye opens. He doesn’t understand what has just happened, but he is happy to be helped off the table, still holding fast to Menghis, who gently lifts him up with his loving arms and carries him down the long hallway, crowded as always on both sides with waiting patients. The bravest boy was smiling now, his power bar held tightly in his little hand.

The little boy memorized Menghis’ cell number and frequently called him. Before Menghis boarded his flight back to California, he had to see his friend one last time and stopped my his home in Asmara. The boy and his family talked about how extremely grateful they were for the work done by the Himalayan Cataract Project. The bravest boy told Menghis that he couldn’t wait to go back to school.

Menghis then asked, “And what do you want to be when you grow up?’

"I want to be an Ophthalmologist."

Created By
Christopher Briscoe
Appreciate

Credits:

Story and photographs by Christopher Briscoe