Spokane doctor brings first retina laser to Angola | Business
It took two years of fundraising and a mountain of paperwork for Dr. Eric Guilielmo of Spokane Eye Clinic to install a retina laser at a hospital in Angola, a country located on the southwest shore of Africa. Many of the patients there suffer from retinal eye conditions and up until Dr. Guilielmo brought the disassembled laser to the country there was nothing available to save them from blindness.
Angola gained independence from Portugal in 1975, and then spent the next 27 years engaged in a blood diamond funded civil war. President Jose Eduardo dos Santos has been in power since 1975 and has been accused of corruption and of plundering the country’s oil wealth. According to Forbes, the people of Angola live off of $2 a day while President dos Santos has secured a $3 billion fortune for his daughter through questionable government funded business deals.
“It’s very disheartening to see a country like Angola that has a lot of money and could provide for their people but doesn’t,” said Dr. Guilielmo, a Retina Specialist. Like many third world countries, the people of Angola suffer from treatable eye conditions.
Dr. Guilielmo was asked to come and see patients with conditions like diabetic retinopathy and retinal tears. However, they didn’t have a retina laser used to treat the diseases. In fact, there wasn’t a single one of those lasers in the entire country.
“It was important to me largely because I knew they needed it so badly,” said Dr. Guilielmo. “If I didn’t bring it over there it wasn’t going to happen.”
Dr. Guilielmo spent a year trying to raise money to buy the Angolan hospital the $32,000 laser, but kept coming up short. Just when he was about to give up his quest, Spokane Eye Clinic decided to upgrade their laser.
“I was about to give up,” said Dr. Guilielmo. “Fortunately my partners are very generous.”
Spokane Eye Clinic agreed to donate the used laser to Dr. Guilielmo.
With the laser secure, Dr. Guilielmo began the process of applying to travel to Angola. Closely tied with Cuba, Angola is notoriously difficult to enter. Guilielmo had to fly to the Angolan Consulate in Texas to apply for a visa, and plead his case to deliver the laser. Lucky for him, he had a letter of recommendation from the hospital.
“It took upwards of a year just to get in,” explained Dr. Guilielmo. And once he got in he was detained by immigration. It took some smooth talking by a hospital employee to finally get Dr. Guilielmo and the much needed laser into Angola.
After spending a day evaluating patients, Dr. Guilielmo started the uncertain task of reassembling the laser.
“It’s not the easiest thing to transport to Africa,” said Dr. Guilielmo.
The biggest concern was that the laser wouldn’t be able to convert to the Angola electricity system. But with some re-wiring and creative bolt maneuvers, the laser was up and ready for patients. After treating a few patients himself, Dr. Guilielmo trained some of the Angolan hospital doctors how to use it.
“It’s more important that it’s working and they know how to use it when I’m gone,” said Dr. Guilielmo.
Many of the patients seen during Dr. Guillermo's trip traveled hours by bus to undergo the laser treatment. For some of them it was the first time they’d had clear vision in years. The donated laser from Spokane Eye Clinic the only thing saving them from total blindness.
“Even though it was difficult, it was very rewarding,” said Dr. Guilielmo, adding that a trip back to Angola probably isn’t in his future. However, he has been asked by hospitals in both Uzbekistan and Ecuador to come and do clinics and lectures on retinal diseases.
As rewarding as it was for Dr. Guilielmo, he makes it clear that bringing the laser to Angola wouldn’t have been possible without the generosity of the other doctors at Spokane Eye Clinic.
“It was nice to see all the partners chip in,” said Dr. Guilielmo.