1996 Laureate, Science & Health
United States, Born 1935
Under the shadow of an acacia tree in Monduli Juu, high in the mountains of Tanzania, the village elders entrusted Dr. Royce Hall with their land.
Dr. Hall, a 60-year-old American ophthalmologist, had won the confidence of the native Maasai to build the first eye hospital in this rural mountain region situated between the Serengeti National Park and Mount Kilimanjaro.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), a staggering half million people in Tanzania and Kenya are blind, mainly as a result of poor diet and inadequate medical care. Half of these cases of blindness are attributable to cataracts. In the area to be served by the Monduli Juu Maasai Eye Hospital alone, there are estimated to be more than seven thousand people suffering from cataracts and an equal number from other eye ailments.
In building the eye hospital, Hall, who has recently retired from a successful 20-year private practice in Florida to carry on his work in the African "bush", is fulfilling a lifelong ambition to help the needy in Africa. From his new base in Portugal, he will have easier access to Africa and the people he has been caring for since 1979. He explains: "For more than 15 years I have organised expeditions to East and West Africa where I have often performed 20 to 30 eye operations a day. Now by establishing an outpatient medical facility in Tanzania, I will be able to devote more time to a special people who have been virtually ignored by the world at large."
To date, Hall has paid all the expenses for the project out of his own pocket, a figure totalling nearly US$100,000. He has also convinced other specialists from industrialised countries to participate as volunteers. As summarised by an expert on the region: "Dr Hall has invested his personal wealth, health and security in a project benefiting the disabled in an inhospitable environment."
The dedicated ophthalmic surgeon’s four main objectives in building the eye hospital are to provide badly needed, modern, medical and surgical eye care for the Maasai; to train the Maasai as eye surgery technicians; to improve the economy of the local villages by teaching these tribesmen various skills, including ecological construction techniques; and to train Tanzanian ophthalmologists to perform modern cataract surgery.
The Gift of Sight
Not content with more traditional surgery methods, which leave the patient wearing thick and uncomfortable magnifying glasses, Hall has introduced very advanced surgical techniques using the most recently developed intraocular lenses. By actually removing the cloudy, "opacified" lens of the eye and replacing it with an intraocular lens, a tiny plastic implant, the patient will be able to see as perfectly as he would with his normal lens.
Intraocular lenses worth more than US$300,000 are already on site. These lenses and other supplies were donated by pharmaceutical firms through the Africa Vision Fund, a non-profit-making organisation established by Hall several years ago to circumvent customs problems.
"Because these lenses, normally priced at US$100 each, have been donated, fees will be set at the equivalent of US 55 cents per consultation and $3.65 per operation," says Hall. "This may be one of the lowest cost projects for delivering medical care in the world. Of course, no one will be turned away for lack of a few shillings," he stresses.
Economy is key in all aspects of the project and the Rolex Laureate has set the entire construction budget at a relatively modest US$150,000. Based on his practical experience, the annual operating costs of $25,000 to $30,000 should enable a team of doctors to operate on approximately 3,000 blind people per year.
Involving the Maasai
Hall understands that the success of his eye hospital depends on its sustainability, that is, how well he can train the Maasai to first build and then run the hospital. Once the building is completed (scheduled for December 1997), he will take his place as head doctor and other doctors and ophthalmologists will come from abroad. But he knows that it is essential that the Maasai become and stay involved in all aspects of the hospital administration.
Furthermore, by training the Maasai as paramedics and eye technicians and offering courses to Tanzanian eye doctors, Hall believes the hospital will be able to run autonomously, even after he eventually leaves Africa for good and finally retires.
The Rolex Award is expected to augment Hall’s enormous personal expenditure in the project and help ensure the future functioning of the hospital. Initially, beyond speeding up construction, funding from the Award has been earmarked specifically for improved hospital facilities while freeing other funds for staff quarters and a "bush ambulance" to transfer patients needing anaesthesia for more complicated surgery to a larger hospital.
Fellow ophthalmologists confirm that Hall has set himself a gigantic task and acknowledge that he is overcoming obstacles one by one in order to accomplish it. No one doubts his ability to succeed and that the impact of the eye hospital, the only medical facility of its kind within 200 kilometres of the Monduli Juu location, will quickly extend well beyond Maasailand where it is regarded as one of the most significant projects of the region and a model for others to follow.
Published in 1996