* * *
If an adult patient waits a year to remove a cataract, or even two years, a new lens might still restore vision to where it was before the cataract. This isn’t true for young children, since their rapidly developing brains begin to favor the strong eye, dissolving the connection with the weak one (called amblyopia). It also isn’t true for Mo’s right eye, where trauma farther back in the eye has destroyed the potential for his sight to be restored. But for cases like his left eye, theoretically, it’s possible.
But if Mo is expelled to the provinces later this year, he may never return to Freetown, let alone undergo a surgery that may or may not repair vision in one eye. For Mo, the chance will be over.
In the boardroom, I asked Ian Crozier about his two-week week flirtation with blindness in one eye. For Crozier, wearing a left eye patch meant swashbuckling with children in U.S. airports and dealing with anxiety over losing the left side of his world. It was a difficult time for him, he said, but not a life-threatening one. He had since returned to Sierra Leone with Emory’s QEWA team to develop treatment protocols and help care for survivors. He told me the story of a boy with circumstances much like Mo’s.
“The child is completely alone in the world. Now, I want you to imagine what happens if he goes blind,” Crozier said with an edge in his voice. The boardroom is silent, except a cart of pressed linens trundling down the hall. “Unimaginable. You couldn’t script anything worse.”
The Emory team’s study will take time. But it’s a race against the clock for cases like Mo. Can we remove cataracts in time to prevent their lives from collapsing?
“There is indeed a small window of opportunity in helping these people,” says Mattia. “Once this window is closed, the eye may not be salvaged anymore.”
* * *
Mo says he often thinks about taking his own life. We sit in a dusty, vacant classroom after school one day and talk about this.
Mo had wanted to become a lawyer—mostly because his auntie says he should, since he talks too much. But he had loved school. Each morning, he washes himself by the slum spigot and dresses in his uniform, which he keeps carefully on a hanger to avoid his least-favorite chore, ironing. If his auntie has some money, she gives it to him for rice at lunchtime. He looks forward to seeing Mr. Kamara, his math teacher, who teaches the class fun English phrases and tells goofy stories about birds landing on children’s heads before exams for good luck.
When his vision began to decay, school became torturous. Mo started bickering with peers who noticed him falling farther and farther behind. The brawls have escalated, letting up only when his auntie threatens to beat him. His classmates tell him the rumors their parents have heard: that all Ebola survivors go crazy in time. Mo worries that he can already feel the craze coming on. He can’t sleep. He can’t focus.
“There is a lot of suffering in the provinces,” he utters, suddenly in English, ensuring the translation is clear. “A lot of suffering.” Then he sits quietly, his head resting on a desk, waiting.
Reporting for this story was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.