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The Gift of Sight

The story of 14-year-old Juel, a young man with a family history of eye problems.

Most of us take the gift of sight for granted. However, many Trinbagonians suffer from the avoidable loss of vision – a situation often exacerbated by the prevalence of diabetes in our country.

This is the story of 14-year-old Juel, a young man with a family history of eye problems. Two of his brothers suffer from monocular vision while his mother lives with complete retinal detachment. Juel seemed to have escaped from such issues. However, when he was nine years old, one eye was damaged in a classroom accident. Still, he had vision in his other eye. Up until recently… “He told me, ‘Mom, I’m seeing half my eye in blackness and half in light,’” Juel’s mother, Simone Stewart, explained.

As a working, single mother to four boys, Simone’s schedule was incredibly busy. However, due to her family’s complex eye history, she knew that she had to act immediately. Medical assessments revealed that Juel’s situation was dire – his retina was detaching. To save his vision, Juel needed to have emergency surgery in five days’ time. The cost was a staggering $32,000.
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"To save his vision, Juel needed to have emergency surgery in five days’ time. The cost was a staggering $32,000."

The Ministry of Health had assisted Simone with medical expenses in the past. But the country was in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic and she wasn’t able to contact the right people in such a short time period. Simone is a domestic worker and her employer stunned her by offering to cover half of the cost of the surgery. She was deeply thankful. But the thought of raising $16,000 in a few days was still daunting. Simone considered starting a GoFundMe fundraiser but there was no guarantee she could raise such a large sum on money in a short space of time. And her son’s vision hung in the balance.

Simone knew about the Trinidad Eye Hospital, a non-profit organization dedicated to revolutionizing eye care in Trinidad and Tobago. The TEH surgeons perform an average of 1,200 surgeries yearly, treating eye diseases ranging from cataracts to retinal detachment to glaucoma. TEH founder, Dr. Ronnie Bhola had seen too many patients suffer from loss of vision due to lack of funds and his organization’s vision is a world where everyone sees. Simone certainly wanted her son to continue to live in a world where he could see and so she reached out to TEH for assistance.
The TEH crew realized that the surgery had to happen immediately and committed to working with Juel’s doctor to make this happen. TEH had worked with the Maritime Financial Group last year, when Maritime donated funds towards six eye surgeries. “Maritime said they had a special interest in helping children,” explained TEH Stakeholder Engagement Manager, Franka Mohammed “I thought it was a good idea to call Maritime and they immediately gave the difference.”

Simone had done what seemed impossible and raised $32,000 in less than a week. Now all she needed was for Juel’s surgery to be a success. After surgery, Juel was placed on bedrest and Simone carefully adhered to all the doctor’s instructions. She briefly panicked when her son told her that all he could see was light, but the doctor reassured her that this was normal. After a month’s bedrest – where Juel had to carefully lie in the correct position – there was good news. “The doctor said, ‘you can go back and play football now,’” Simone recalled. In fact, other doctors declared this was one of the best results they had ever seen from this type of surgery.

All was not well, however. After eye surgery, it is common for patients’ glasses prescription to change and that is exactly what happened with Juel. Maritime donated a further $2,800 for Juel’s glasses so that he could continue to see the world in brightest colour. “I am so thankful to God for how everything came together,” said Simone. “Now Juel has a brand new pair of glasses, he is thrilled to be seeing.”
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"I am so thankful to God for how everything came together,” said Simone. “Now Juel has a brand new pair of glasses, he is thrilled to be seeing."

Many of us are unaware of other citizens’ struggle to see. However, this is a problem that the TEH team knows all too well. TEH hosts a number of charitable initiatives – you may have seen coverage of their programme, The Gift of Sight, which offers surgeries to those who cannot afford medical intervention. While generous doctors and hospitals donate time or facilities for these surgeries, Franka explained that TEH’s work is made possible by sponsorship. “Maritime has really shown that they are very invested in making a difference with sight,” Franka said, “They are an active member of our sponsorship community in reducing avoidable blindness.”

Indeed, the Maritime Financial Group is deeply committed to being a good corporate citizen. Involvement with a charity does not mean writing one cheque and then patting yourself on the back. It means committing to making real sustainable change in Trinidad and Tobago. If the COVID-19 pandemic has proven anything, it is how deeply we are all connected as citizens. In these challenging times, it is more important than ever before to look out for one another.