may 2, 2005.
The idea for
this latest post started with a big imaginary number. A big number
to setup the story. When I learned of blind identical two year old
twins scheduled for eye surgery, and found they came from a nearby
IDP camp, it seemed a perfect exercise for calculating high odds.
I'd always loved the idea of a long shot.
I started with the odds of being born with an identical twin: about
1 in 240. That seemed less than I'd guessed, but made sense. Next,
on to being born blind with cataracts in both eyes. A little more
than 1 in 10,000. The last number to throw in, the odds of being
born an Internally Displaced Person or IDP. A what?
What I knew of IDPS was limited to newspaper and television reports
of people crowded together in camps waiting to go home. But after
seeing many of the Liberian camps - I've learned they mean thousands
squatting, living on top of each other in mud huts, rain leaking
through unraveling blue and white tarps - the sun relentlessly forcing
through cracking walls. They mean waiting for food handouts from
the World Food Programme. At best "IDP" is a poor, abstract term
that conveys little humanity and provokes too little thought.
The term was coined to differentiate from refugees. To describe
people forced to leave their homes as a result of armed conflict,
generalized violence, human rights violations or disasters. Yet
because they didn't flee across a border, they don't qualify for
the benefits and aid money or the privilege of being called refugees.
This in mind, expecting a number similar to stats for blindness,
I was shocked to find out the odds were almost identical to being
born with a lookalike. That just couldn't be right. Yet more research
pointed to about 25 million IDP's in our world. Out of our world
pop of 6.4 billion of us that's 1 in 254. Unsurprisingly, Africa
hosts more than half of the world's IDPS - six million of them in
Yet even with a much lower global home to homeless ratio than expected,
once I put the factors together, I got my very large number. Born
with an identical twin, blind and displaced? Ready? Bad luck to
the tune of 1 in 381 million.
Meet Assan and Alusan. They live on the doorstep of total darkness,
their heads bobbing and weaving as they touch their faces and hands
together outside the ship's gangway, waiting to be admitted. They
have never seen their mother, never seen each other. They cannot
see that they wear what surely must be donated matching outfits,
rust colored shorts with oversized off-white shirts - a blue and
red race car marking their tops and "bon voyage" their shorts.
The boys were born in the Caldwell IDP camp about forty five minutes
from Monrovia - Liberia's capital city where our hospital ship is
docked. Add one refugee mom to the picture. Initially from Sierra
Leone, their mother, Ellen, had fled imminent danger during the
country's ugly civil war in 1999 only to find herself embroiled
in another war - Liberia's 14 year old conflict. Tough stuff, but
their story turns here.
A neighbor in the camp told Ellen about our ship that offered free
medical care and surgery. She came, and the boys were screened by
our eye staff and scheduled for bilateral cataract surgery. The
day before their big day, some excited colleagues and I piled into
a dilapidated taxi and headed for the IDP camp about an hour away.
On what we normally wouldn't call a road, splattered with 92 potholes
and small lakes, we pulled up to the camp. We wanted to see the
twins in their environment and make sure they didn't miss their
important surgery date. After about an hour visit to the camp, we
learned that they had left for Monrovia already.
I first saw the twins the next morning, and after a closer look,
had to wonder whether an operation would prove successful. The mother
looked at us hopefully, but their little eyes seemed all wrong -
the cataracts seemed the least of their problems, for they had never
built up the muscles that kept them moving in concert. The eyes
were painful to watch, rolling aimlessly in opposite directions.
Two mornings later I huddled around their bed in the ward with a
few others, watching Texas surgeon Dr. Glenn Strauss work. Dr. Strauss
had removed their cataracts, and was now removing their eye patches
for the moment of truth. I believe we were told not to expect a
quick miracle of 20/20 vision - but what followed was memorable
The boys could see.
They could focus and track.
Yellow balloons came out and their little hands grabbed and punched
them. They scanned our faces with clear black wide eyes, overwhelmed
by new sensations as Dr. Strauss beamed and we laughed. A new meaning
to the expression "wide-eyed" for us - we were proud parents watching
our child take that first step, yet the gift of first time sight
easily trumped that of movement.
We took them home to a relative's house in a Land Rover later that
day, and watched as they showed off new eyes and new steps for a
surprised extended family. We watched as they began exploring a
new world on new feet - first in unsure wide circles, a half hour
later in erratic, confident lines after each other, their first
game of tag.
here to explore images of their journey
feedback | read
more patient stories