Helena Ndume, MD, selected for 2023 ASCRS Foundation Chang-Crandall Humanitarian Award
The ASCRS Foundation is proud to announce that Helena Ndume, MD, is the 2023 recipient of the ASCRS Foundation Chang-Crandall Humanitarian Award. The Chang-Crandall Humanitarian Award is endowed by a generous gift from David and Victoria Chang to celebrate and honor outstanding humanitarian work with an emphasis on cataract blindness and disability.
“It is difficult for me to find the words to thank you [Dr. Chang] and the ASCRS Foundation for this extraordinary recognition. I might say that this is the realization of a dream, but truly, it is beyond that. This is an honor that I have not and could not have imagined in my wildest dreams. … I am receiving the honor with an overwhelming sense of joy, but in my heart, I know that this award belongs to all of those who have and continue to make the Namibian Blindness Prevention Project a success. I want to thank you and accept this honor on behalf of all those who have made our work possible.” – Helena Ndume, MD
Helena Ndume came into the world during a time of widespread political unrest. It was the early 1960s, and colonized nations across all of Africa were beginning their struggles for independence. She was born in northern Namibia and lived with her parents in a small house in a segregated area of her village designated for Black residents. Houses in these areas had communal water faucets and bucket toilets. While neither parent had had a chance for a formal education, they dreamed of a brighter future for Namibia and a better life for their children.
While still at junior high school, Helena became actively involved in student protests against colonial occupation, apartheid, and the racially determined educational inequities of her country. These protests were ruthlessly put down by the occupying army of South Africa, with resultant injury and arrests of those participating in the uprising. Hundreds of protesting students had been rounded up and imprisoned. As an active member of the student resistance, it was clear that her arrest was imminent. At age 15, Helena had a painful conversation with her parents. All options were heart wrenching. She explained that she had only two choices. Leave her home and escape to Angola in hopes of becoming part of the independence movement or face certain imprisonment. Saddened but supportive of Helena’s efforts, her father embraced her, looked into her eyes, and gave her his Rosary to protect her on the journey to her new life.
That night, in the early evening hours, Helena left home with three other friends and headed north. Traveling without a passport, she walked, and took public buses, and eventually sneaked past border guards to enter Angola on foot. A violent civil war was raging in Angola. Although she was no longer in danger of being arrested, travel was extremely hazardous and the conditions dangerous, especially for young women. Through a network of friends awaiting her in Angola, Helena was able to link with the Southwest African Peoples Organization (SWAPO), the liberation movement of Namibia. Eventually, with the help and protection of her colleagues, traveling by “liberation” trucks and on foot, she was able to cross into Zambia. Zambia and Botswana had already attained independence from Britain and now supported other independence movements throughout Southern Africa. Under the protection of the SWAPO liberation movement, the majority of Namibian refugees were now living in a refugee camp in Zambia.
Helena discovered in her new home a welcoming community of over 5,000 men, women, and children, all having escaped South African dominance and brutality. Among the most important features of SWAPO was desire to foster solidarity, unity, and equality. In colonized Namibia, women were seldom recognized as leaders or even important members of the community. In the refugee settlements, women were immediately placed in positions of power, and the health, education, and the welfare of all citizens became prominent cornerstones of this new government in absentia. Children’s education was seen as a top priority. Under the direction of adults, new school buildings were constructed by the students. Namibian teachers from around the world were recruited to come to the camp to teach the future leaders of an independent Namibia.
Helena excelled in the school and soon came to the attention of one of the female leaders of SWAPO, Dr. Libertina Amadhila, fondly called ‘Aunty Lib.’ Like a mother to many exiled children, Dr. Amadhila saw the promise of Helena and mentored her. After completion of her high school education in Zambia, she won a scholarship from the Organization of African Unity to attend school in Gambia, where she continued her education while living with foster parents with whom she remains in contact with to this day. With Auntie Lib’s encouragement, Helena then applied and won an East German-sponsored scholarship to medical school at the University of Leipzig, which also gave her a one-year pre-med scholarship to learn the German language. Already fluent in English, Afrikaans, Ovambo, and Herero, Helena quickly picked up this new language and excelled in her medical studies, which were conducted entirely in German.
To determine her future specialization, Helena went to Auntie Lib for advice, and once again Auntie Lib’s guidance helped Helena to make one of the most important decisions of her life. Auntie Lib asked Helena to look down at her hands. “We have thousands of people in Namibia who are blinded by cataracts and have no one to help them to see again,” Auntie Lib said. “Those small hands can make the difference in the lives of thousands of poor patients who are desperate for the chance to see again and whose families need them. They need your hands to help them see again.” And that was that! Helena applied for a residency in ophthalmology and returned to East Germany where she did her training at the University of Saarland. Anxious to learn the basics of running an eye camp for the poor, Helena elected to do her field studies in Tamil Nadu, India where she for the first time became part of an eye surgery outreach program for eye surgery.
After completing her training, Helena’s most important goal was to begin organizing and running eye surgical camps for Namibia’s poor. At the advice of the highly respected Zimbabwean eye surgeon, Dr. Solomon Guramatunhu, Helena attended the 1995 ASCRS Annual Meeting where she visited the booth of Surgical Eye Expeditions (SEE International). Dr. Solomon, as he is often called, had vast experience working in Zimbabwe and other African countries as a surgeon and had hosted many SEE International sponsored surgical eye camps. Dr. Solomon introduced Helena to the SEE staff, and her career as an eye surgeon dedicated to serving the poor began.
“Helena’s unwavering commitment to the poor and underserved is a constant inspiration to everyone who has had the honor of working with her. Her example helps remind us what a wonderful gift we have been given as eye surgeons and why we must share this precious gift with those most in need,” said Michael Colvard, MD.
Helena joined SEE’s roster of volunteer eye surgeons and began to organize ophthalmological treatment camps throughout Namibia. Preparing for her first SEE eye surgical camp, Helena and her staff identified and scheduled 200 patients whose vision was severely impaired by cataracts. When the camp opened, only 85 of these patients showed up. In those days, Black Namibians with little access to modern healthcare believed that blindness was a natural part of growing old. And there was also a concern, voiced by many, that eye surgery was dangerous and that “if you go to that camp, that young girl will ruin your eyes.” Helena’s first SEE camp, however, was wildly successful and patients returning home spread the word. When the next camp opened several months later, 300 patients were scheduled, but many more arrived from all over Namibia, hoping to have their vision restored.
For the last 25 years, working with SEE’s steadfast support, generous supply donations from Alcon Surgical, and the whole-hearted support of the Namibian government, Helena has led the Namibian Blindness Prevention Project. Under her guidance, the project has provided free sight restorative surgery to over 55,000 patients who were blinded by cataracts. The Namibian Blindness Prevention Project is now primarily a self-sustaining organization, staffed by Helena, five other well-trained Namibian surgeons, and a committed group of SEE volunteer surgeons from around the world.
In acknowledgment of her years of work in the service of humanity, Helena has received numerous awards and accolades including the inaugural Nelson Mandela Award, a prestigious honor conferred by the United Nations only once every five years.
“I am delighted to be part of an organization that is recognizing the lifelong work of Dr. Helena Ndume. … She is an inspiration to all ophthalmologists, and her success has inspired thousands of girls and women to dream big and to not let adversity steal their dreams,” said Susan MacDonald, MD.
Read more about the ASCRS Foundation Chang-Crandall Humanitarian Award here.