Of Kenya, carry-on items, and cross-continental corneal transplants

Posted by: West Georgia Eye Care Center in Frontpage Article on August 5, 2016

Globally, almost 300 million people are visually impaired, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Statistically, 9 out of every 10 visually impaired people worldwide are from low-income settings, and 8 of 10 suffer from preventable, curable conditions. Unfortunately, the vision-saving surgical procedures we take for granted in the United States are only a dream for many in the developing world.

In the face of these grim odds, some physicians are motivated to bring sight-saving skills and supplies to remote and sometimes unsafe places. One such physician is our own Dr. James Brooks, who recently returned from Tenwek Hospital in central southern Kenya, where he performed corneal transplants and treatment for the visually impaired. Dr. Brooks, a corneal disease specialist, also serves Columbus and the surrounding region by volunteering his time at Mercy Med (see last week’s blog). We asked Dr. Brooks what compels him to donate his time both across the globe and here at home. He credits his Christian faith, his sense of responsibility to those in need, and his sense of adventure!

But Dr. Brooks can tell it better than we can. Read on for more information on why he loves Kenya, medical missions at home and abroad, and find out what he keeps in his travel carry-on!

Q: How did you get involved in international mission work?

Dr. Brooks: “In 1987, while in medical school. I was traveling on an ophthalmology mission to Cordoba, Mexico where the team operated on the second floor of a Mexican jail facility. Imagine a three dining room table cataract operating room while outside the window Mexican guards with automatic weapons yelled at inmates…who wouldn’t get sold on ophthalmology and international missions after that experience?”

Q: What about the Kenya connection?

Dr. Brooks: “There were multiple trips to Mexico, Guatemala, eastern Europe and a few other countries over the years. But about 10 years ago, I became aware of the need for corneal surgeons (and corneal tissue) at the Lighthouse for Christ in Mombasa, Kenya. The Lighthouse has been providing ophthalmic care since 1969, and currently performs over 32,000 outpatient visits and more than 2,000 surgical procedures annually.”

Q: So, corneal tissue. How do you get it to Mombasa?

Dr. Brooks: “I typically travel to Mombasa at least annually, acting as my own mule transporting in my carry-on bag corneal tissue graciously donated by Georgia Eye Bank (or from other banks coordinated by GEB). Surprisingly, only once have I been asked to open the carry-on for inspection, and in that instance the customs official in Nairobi said, ‘Oh, Lighthouse in Mombasa. Carry on!'”

Q: What’s your vision for the future of corneal care in Mombasa?

Dr. Brooks: “In 2015 we initiated an effort* to make corneal care in Mombasa more self-sustaining and less dependent on foreign ophthalmologists.”

“Thanks to these many generous partners, cornea care in eastern Kenya is becoming more readily available, improving vision, and changing lives…There is no greater way to enrich our own lives than by giving to the least of these.”

*The three-pronged strategy includes a Lighthouse physician completing a corneal fellowship abroad, quarterly shipping of corneal tissue from GEB to Mombasa (*applause!*) and an on-site specialty contact lens fitting training class, in partnership with X-Cel Specialty Ophthalmics.


Q: Would you say serving in a foreign country makes you a better doctor when you return to your local patients?

Dr. Brooks: “Yes, but more importantly [it makes me] a better person who happens to be a doctor…it reminds me that much of what we enjoy and take for granted are not the necessities of life: faith, relationships, purpose in living, and essential needs being met. It keeps life in perspective.”


West Georgia Eye Care Center knows that a doctor with this type of dedication is someone you can trust with your vision needs. We are blessed to have doctors and staff who serve in this way, and we will share more stories like this in coming blogs. It’s one of the reasons it matters who you see!