Bruneian doctor participates in international eye-care effort in Mongolia

|     James Kon     |

DR HAJAH Helena binti Pehin Orang Kaya Setia Jaya Dato Paduka Haji Hurairah, a local UK-trained ophthalmologist with special interests in paediatric ophthalmology and strabismus (eye movement disorders), joined Orbis International from August 12 – 16 for its in-country ophthalmic skills exchange and surgical programme in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

She is the first Bruneian doctor to join Orbis International’s intensive blindness prevention skills exchange programme.

Sharing her passion in volunteerism and experience while working with experts to help children with eye issues in Mongolia, Dr Hajah Helena said, “I grew up in an environment where I was always exposed to volunteerism from a very young age at the Association for Paraplegic and Physically Disabled Association (PAPDA) of Brunei Darussalam. My mother always brought me and my siblings to the centre. So joining the Orbis International was a natural step after my ophthalmology training.”

Orbis International is an international non-profit organisation formed in 1982, and has worked in over 90 countries alongside its extensive network of partners and expert international volunteer faculty, with the vision of transforming lives through the prevention and treatment of blindness.

On the organisation, she said, “Orbis provides the world’s only ophthalmic teaching hospital on a FedEx-donated MD-10 aircraft, and brings world class training and attention to eye health in developing countries.

Dr Hajah Helena binti Pehin Orang Kaya Setia Jaya Dato Paduka Haji Hurairah comforts a Mongolian girl who underwent eye treatment. – PHOTOS: JAMES KON
The Orbis and Mongolian paediatric cataract surgical team members were led by Dr Jonathan Song, Associate Professor of Clinical Ophthalmology, USC Roski Eye Institute

“The organisation provides comprehensive in-country programmes as well as an award-winning telemedicine platform called Cybersight. Orbis is also a taskforce member in the World Health Organization’s (WHO) agenda for a global action – Vision 2020 – The Right to Sight.”

Explaining her passion for pediatric ophthalmology and treating children, Dr Hajah Helena said, “Children can suffer from cataracts, glaucoma or crossed eyes (strabismus). Children only have a window of the first seven years of their life to develop the best vision. So I feel passionate about helping children attain the best vision they can have.”

According to WHO, Northeast Asia has a relatively high prevalence of blindness. In the case of Mongolia, cataracts are the most common cause of visual impairment among the people.

The country’s cataract surgical rate is notably one of the lowest in Asia, while 88 per cent of its children’s vision impairment is due to refractive errors – a condition that requires the wearing of eyeglasses – yet it has been estimated that up to 89 per cent of Mongolian children who require spectacles are not wearing them.

“My experience with Orbis International could not have come at a better time. The programme has left me feeling humbled, energised and motivated, not only from getting the chance to transfer my own clinical skill sets and knowledge to the eye professionals in Mongolia, but more importantly from getting to exchange experiences and hear of the challenges the ophthalmologists are facing there,” Dr Hajah Helena added of her Mongolia experience.

“Learning from the expert volunteer faculty and fostering friendships and mentorship relationships with likeminded professionals was so inspiring…I am so grateful to be part of such a diverse experienced global community.”

Recounting some memorable moments from the programme, she said, “I think it was the everyday interaction with the people there. I was working with a team of American surgeons, and despite being experts in their fields, they were so humble.

“There was this time when we were treating a child with turned-in eyes. She came from a very far-off region in the mountains. Our team took 40 minutes to carry out her operation, and her eyes became straight again. There were several other unforgettable moments.”

The WHO estimates that up to 80 per cent of blindness in the world is avoidable, preventable and treatable. For Dr Hajah Helena, this reality provides extra fuel for her in her drive to do better for her fellow countrymen and women in the area of eye care and pediatric ophthalmology.

“I joined Orbis International as I wanted to bring back my experience to Brunei. We are a small country, but we have a very high GDP and a good eye healthcare system in place. Still, we can do better and improve this system, that’s for sure,” Dr Hajah Helena said.

“From a paediatric ophthalmology perspective, I would love to work closely together with the Women and Children’s Centre at Raja Isteri Pengiran Anak Saleha (RIPAS) Hospital and children’s services throughout the country to ensure our paediatric population has unrestricted access to early vision screening – this is most effective when performed regularly with children, with the first screening ideally taking place when the child is a newborn.

“We have a fantastic team of orthoptists and optometrists at the Eye Centre in RIPAS. My future hope for Brunei is that we can form close partnerships with local and international organisations to continually improve and enhance our medical education and training. It is an exciting time to be back in Brunei, especially in light of His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah ibni Al-Marhum Sultan Haji Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien Sa’adul Khairi Waddien, Sultan and Yang Di-Pertuan of Brunei Darussalam’s titah in this year’s National Day celebration in which he stressed the importance of youth in spearheading the country’s development,” she added.

Dr Hajah Helena noted that there is a tendency for people to wait until their eye condition deteriorates badly enough before they actually seek treatment.

“Once there are any symptoms indicating some problem with your eyes, please come to see us. This is particularly important for the aging and diabetic population. Another thing is that UV rays are the common cause of cataract cases in Brunei. We are very lucky because we have free healthcare and a good eye care system,” she advised.

“Children must attend regular eye appointments after screening as well – this is important particularly for children who are below seven years old, as this is the period in their lives where any developing eye problems can be treated more effectively and nip in the bud.”