By Julie Roegiers, general manager of IRIS Mundial

24 IRIS Mundial volunteers returned from Gabon on Thursday, February 1 with their heads full of wonderful memories.

After many months of preparation, a multidisciplinary team of vision professionals (ophthalmologists, optometrists and opticians) and other stakeholders flew to Lambaréné, Gabon on January 20 2024, to offer comprehensive vision care to the people of the community. More than 1,900 people have benefited from care thanks to their dedication.

This wonderful project came to fruition in partnership with the Fondation Internationale Schweitzer Lambaréné . The desperate need for eye care in the Lambaréné region was obvious: even though the town has two good hospitals, there are no ophthalmologists in the area, and people have to travel to Libreville, more than 250 km away, to have their eyes checked.

A big-hearted team of volunteers travelled to this equatorial Central African country  to offer their time and expertise. Situated on the banks of the River Ogooué, 250 km south of Libreville, Lambaréné, the mission’s host town, is centered around an island where the local market is located. Pirogues are a crucial means of transport for the local population,  travelling up and down the river to reach other villages.

The entire team was welcomed at the famous Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Lambaréné, and it was in the current polyclinic that the “ophthalmology caravan” was held for six days! Braving the extreme humid heat, the strain caused by repetitive movements and the fatigue of very long days, our volunteers worked tirelessly to offer as many people as possible a complete eye examination. As a result, several hundred people received treatment and regained sight: of the 1,900 or so patients examined, over 1,500 received a pair of glasses for distance and/or near vision. In addition, all patients received a pair of sunglasses and were made aware of the harmful effects of the sun’s rays on the eyes.

For an additional seventh day, the IRIS Mundial team set up a mobile screening clinic in an elementary school located upstream from the hospital. Visual acuity charts hung on the wall in one corner of a classroom, electronic refraction measurements with a portable autorefractometer in another corner of the same classroom, and an eyewear dispensing station were all set up in no time at all.. A small team of volunteers was thus able to carry out a visual screening of around a hundred children and their teachers. A few pairs of prescription glasses were distributed, and each child received a pair of sunglasses. “We wanted to test a lighter, more mobile formula for the visual clinic. This could eventually enable us to travel to more remote areas to reach populations who don’t have the means to travel,” explains Dr. Marie-Chantal Hudon, optometrist and head of vision care on the mission. “It was a success, but we had to deal with the more makeshift conditions of the facilities, as well as the humid heat in the classroom,” she says.

An overwhelming experience

A look of wonder, an embarrassed but infinitely grateful smile, an expression of surprise and then intense joy… A word, a gesture, a vivid emotion. For our volunteers, seeing the difference they make in the lives of people they have helped is an intense and poignant experience.

What better gift than the recognition of the people we were able to help!” During a pirogue trip on the River Ogooué for a well-deserved rest after 7 days of intensive work, our volunteers had the most wonderful surprise. A lady on her pirogue attracted our attention by waving and showing us her glasses. She then clasped both hands together in thanks. We soon realized that this was one of our patients, who had recognized us and wanted to express her gratitude. No words were exchanged, just gestures – but gestures that were worth a thousand words!

IRIS Mundial volunteers have plenty of stories to tell. Here are a few of them…

The story of Émile, a farmer

Optician Andréanne Fortin tells us Émile’s story. “Émile is a 73 year-old farmer. Very polite, quiet and infinitely grateful for our presence in Gabon, Émile’s story touched me as soon as he arrived. Émile has very severe myopia: -15.00 in both eyes, that’s huge! And he’s never worn glasses in his life! I couldn’t believe it! Looking at his prescription, knowing that he’s never had glasses in 73 years, I can’t imagine what his environment must have been like for him. I spent a lot of time trying to find a prescription and a frame that would suit him. What I was able to find wasn’t perfect (we have a large bank of glasses, but for such strong prescriptions, it’s more difficult), but it still made a huge difference to him! When I put the glasses on his face, he took my hands and, with the purest look in his eyes, said “I SEE YOU!!!”. Émile then stood up smiling and started looking at the trees outside, pointing at them. I have no words to express what I felt then…”


After eyes, teeth…

Dr. Marie-France Duguay, optometrist, shares a moving moment from her experience. “Here I am with a lady aged around 65, wearing double orthopedic crutches, her back arched, silent… I look at her prescription (+5.50-5.00×90 add+2.75) and I too am momentarily silent. I hesitate between the bifocal approach or two pairs of glasses. I tell myself that she’s old, and getting used to a bifocal approach is risky. But, at the same time, both her hands are busy with her crutches. Changing glasses is tedious. And then… the prescription… phew! So, in our treasure chest, I find the closest match (+5.00-1.00×90 add+3.25). Fingers crossed… I put the glasses in place and… the most beautiful smile appeared with the following exclamation: “I see you!” I decide to walk with her outside to make sure she’s comfortable. I knew she’d only gained a few lines of acuity, but she had access to her surroundings!

She leaves me saying she hopes we’ll be back soon: “Next time, I’d like you to take care of my teeth!”

The story of David, a blind boy on the verge of regaining his sight

Ophthalmologist Dr. Isabelle Savoie tells us the story of David, her 5-year-old blind patient. “David arrived in my exam room with his mom and little sister. I quickly realized that he was born with congenital cataracts in both eyes. Because of his condition, David has very low vision; he is considered legally blind and can only see shadows,” she testifies. 

Directly, Dr. Savoie is mobilizing to ensure that little David can undergo surgery. She contacted a hospital in Bongolo, Gabon, where an American ophthalmologist was operating. No sooner said than done, Dr. Savoie took charge of booking David’s appointment and financing his surgery, in collaboration with her colleagues Dr. Sekhavat and Dr. Shoham-Hazon. In a few days’ time, David will undergo the surgery that will restore his vision! David’s mom sent a message of gratitude to Isabelle and the whole team: “Ah, if only you knew the greatness of the service you gave me when I was desperate, this year he didn’t learn because of this problem. With no means to care for him, I’d lost my zest for life and cried myself to sleep every night, but then you came along, God sent you to me and now I’m happy again. How can I ever thank you? Words are too weak to express myself…“.

Towards a long-term partnership in Gabon

This first experience with our partner, the Fondation Internationale Schweitzer Lambaréné (FISL), was a real success. The project marks the beginning of a long-term partnership with the organization. We want to support the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in developing its ophthalmology department, so that it can make visual care services accessible to the entire population of Lambaréné.

Thank you to our official partners, without whom this mission would not have been a success:

  • – Fondation Internationale Schweitzer Lambaréné
  • – Albert Schweitzer Hospital
  • – Ministère de la Santé et des Affaires sociales of Gabon
  • – Ministère des Affaires étrangères of Gabon
  • – Ministère de l’Intérieur of Gabon

Thanks also to all the organizations that supported IRIS Mundial in this large-scale project with donations of money, equipment or services: IRIS, Le Groupe Visuel and IRIS boutiques for the preparation of used eyeglasses and for the edging of eyeglasses, Essilor for the edging of eyeglasses, Air France, Alcon Canada, Allergan, Centennial, Collaboration Santé Internationale, Health Partners International of Canada and Newlook Vision Group.

A huge thank you and congratulations to our managers and to all the mission’s volunteers for their outstanding dedication and generosity:

Andréanne Fortin

Ariana Arambulo Cevallos

Christian Gagner

Denis Allard

Élaine Giasson

Élodie Bouchard

Fannie Brisson

Francine Lavallée

Houfar Sekhavat

Jacques Dupont

Joannie Mantha

Johanne de Champlain

Liette Bougie

Marie-Chantal Hudon

Marie-France Duguay

Mihaela Mara Somogyi

Nathalie Sureaud

Nir Shoham-Hazon

Patrick Laguë

Stéphanie Gagnon