For Dr. Geoffrey Wiafe, ophthalmology is a family passion. He joined the team at Watborg Eye Services in Ghana in April 2021, where he works alongside his father, Dr. Boateng “Bo” Wiafe, our Technical Advisor. Together, they provide eye surgery and advanced eye care to the country’s underserved patients and communities.
Did we mention his mother, Ruth, is also an ophthalmic nurse at the same facility?
It is no surprise that after graduating medical school, Dr. Wiafe decided to specialize in ophthalmology. Through donor support, we funded his specialist training, and today he is shaping the future of eye health care in Ghana.
As the next generation of physician partners, Dr. Wiafe reflects on the unique challenges his country is facing and the future of eye health care in Ghana.
Looking at your family’s history with Operation Eyesight, was ophthalmology the obvious job choice?
Ophthalmology actually wasn’t my first choice. Initially I was thinking of doing pediatric surgery. After graduation, I joined my father on a couple of outreach trips, where I learned to give retrobulbar anesthesia. So, I think through that I developed an interest in ophthalmology, and here I am today.
I am sure most people think that at dinner, we just talk about eyes. It is always a pleasure to work with my dad. He has so much experience, and so far, it has been awesome.
As a physician working with Operation Eyesight, what is your role and what is the relationship with us like?
Soon after graduation I started working as a general ophthalmologist at Watborg Eye Services, and we are partners with Operation Eyesight. My main role is in outreach services – specifically surgeries. We travel to a number of district hospitals to operate, many of which are also partners of Operation Eyesight.
Operation Eyesight has supported the development of eye departments in a number of district hospitals. I have travelled to some of the facilities several times, and there are always so many cases and so much work to do.
Operation Eyesight is helping a lot of people, as in Ghana not everyone can afford surgery. Because of this partnership, the costs are subsidized and a lot of people can benefit. It’s amazing to be part of this, and I would say my main role is giving those who are blind a second chance.
What would you say is the most rewarding and motivating part of this type of work?
The number one motivator for me is accessibility, as many patients live in a rural setting. When we travel to them, it becomes much easier.
I remember operating on one man who had bilateral cataracts, and he had lost hope.
The day after surgery, he kept on shouting, “I can see, I can see, I can see!” I had tears running down my cheek, because for me, making a blind man see was amazing, and that alone motivates me. I know there is not much I can do for patients financially, but I can give them the chance to work and see their family again.
I’ve been following Operation Eyesight for quite a while, and I know that you have projects in several African countries, as well as in South Asia, and they impact these communities in different ways.
I know of the projects in Zambia, where you are working to eliminate trachoma by bringing water to communities through the restoration of boreholes. Besides just focusing on treating these eye illnesses, Operation Eyesight is also emphasizing development, which is unique.
What projects on the horizon in Ghana are you most excited about?
What stands out to me is the ongoing training of ophthalmic nurses at the Ophthalmic Nursing School in Accra. I know we have set up a wet lab at the ophthalmic nursing school, which I would say is very timely.
I remember during my education I traveled to Cape Town, and they had a simulation wet lab where I received training for small-incision cataract surgery. I was only there for a week, but it felt like I had six months’ worth of training. So, I was excited to hear about this, and I wish we could set up a similar lab to the one in Cape Town for the ophthalmology residents.
I am also very excited about the training of community health nurses by optometrists and ophthalmic nurses. Community health nurses are trained to identify cases within the community, who are then referred to district or teaching hospitals. This is helpful, as not every patient will go to the hospital with an eye problem because it is expensive and difficult to arrange transport.
As well, with cases of glaucoma, it is initially asymptomatic, and many do not see the need to come into the hospital. Because of this, many patients present very late, and unfortunately there is not much we can do, and it is very disheartening. So, the community initiative is very important, and I am very happy that Operation Eyesight is championing this project.
Front-line healthcare staff like yourself always have great insight into how to make care better for patients and families. What would you say is the greatest need in Ghana in terms of eye care?
In Ghana, I believe we have just over 100 ophthalmologists, and most of them will be retiring in the next few years. So, there is a huge need for human resources. Beyond general ophthalmologists, we also need subspecialists, such as retinal and glaucoma specialists.
Just yesterday I was seeing an eye-trauma patient – a young boy who was unfortunately hit by a broomstick. He needed emergency surgery from a retinal specialist, but unfortunately there are very few in Ghana. I referred him, but he waited several hours. I pray that the prognosis is good.
There is such a great need for ophthalmologists in Ghana. I would like to encourage medical students to choose ophthalmology when they graduate.
There are always opportunities for other medical personnel, such as physician assistants, to receive ophthalmic training. I understand this type of training is happening in East Africa, and it could make an enormous difference to the accessibility of eye health care here in Ghana. Currently in Ghana, physician assistants mainly assist in general medicine, such as with malaria cases. With eye health care training, however, they could help see patients, to allow ophthalmologists to focus on surgery.
What does the future of eye health care look like in Ghana?
I feel that as a country, and as Africans in general, we have not done enough research. In Ghana specifically, there is an urgent need for another national blindness and visual impairment study. It will be crucial to evaluate the progress of eye health interventions that have been implemented since the inaugural study several years ago. Also, most general studies have been done in Western countries or Asia, though sometimes we have cases that are specific to a certain group or area that can then go unnoticed.
As Africans, we know a lot about glaucoma or cataract, but I believe there is more that we can still discover. It is very important for us to do research in our communities and in our environment. This is an area that has not been explored, and I think Operation Eyesight can help.
Thank you, Dr. Geoffrey Wiafe, for sharing your perspective on eye health in Ghana.
We are very fortunate to forge partnerships with such passionate and knowledgeable physicians. We look forward to developing future projects in Ghana with your support.