Miramonte Students See Gift of Sight on Medical Mission in Africa

(Contributed Photo)
Miramonte student and Interact Club founder Bella Deanhardt assists a patient at the Zimba Eye Hospital.

    Dr. Yenjean Hwang, an infectious disease specialist and chair of Orinda Rotary’s International Vision Volunteers project, notes about 70 percent of blind people in the world could have vision restored with proper treatment.
    Four Miramonte High School students – Bella Deanhardt, Ally Petek, Natalia Roman and Phoebe Schmidt – learned first-hand what she means.
    The girls were the first students to accompany Hwang, her eye surgeon husband, Ivan, and other medical professionals for a mission to Zambia in south-central Africa to treat residents in the remote village of Zimba.
    For two weeks last summer, the group served patients at Zimba Eye Hospital, a nonprofit founded in 1994 by three East Bay ophthalmologists that has been serving people in Zambia and neighboring countries for 25 years. They also volunteered at a community library and helped build mud huts.
    “This was the first time I have taken young people other than my children,” Hwang said. “They did an amazing job and had a great experience.”
    As a sophomore, Deanhardt, whose father is a Rotarian, started Miramonte’s Interact Club, Rotary International’s service club for people ages 12 to 18. As president, she said she quickly learned the task was too big for one student, so she recruited Petek, Roman and Schmidt as her co-presidents.
    In its first year, Interact Club, which touts 100 members, raised $1,000 toward Orinda Rotary’s $140,000 goal to install solar panels and upgraded medical equipment at the eye hospital.
    “To raise funds, Interact Club members volunteer to work at Rotary functions,” said Deanhardt. “We put out tip jars when we serve and bus tables, for instance. Plus, we get fed!”
    Paying their own way, the girls were allowed one carry-on suitcase and a backpack for the excursion. Large, checked bags were reserved for medicine, supplies and equipment. Travel was grueling as there is no direct flight from the Bay Area to Zambia.
    The group started from San Francisco with a 10-hour flight to London. After a five-hour layover, they spent 12 hours flying to Johannesburg. Then they waited another five hours before they flew the final leg of the journey to Livingstone, Zambia. From there, it was a 37-mile, two-hour drive on dirt roads to Zimba.
    Following a day of rest, the teens split into pairs. One week Petek and Roman traveled to Mwandi to help build mud huts, then switched with Deanhardt and Schmidt to assist at the hospital and library.
    During the hospital week, each girl spent time in the operating room.
    “I have a strong desire to help people and do something meaningful with my life,” says Deanhardt. “Surgery is not in my future, but I sucked it up and did it.”
    Petek, on the other hand, said, “I was loving it!”
    “My dad and brother faint at the sight of blood,” says Roman. But once in the operating room, she says she was “excited and it was cool.”
    “After surgery to remove a cataract, replace a cornea or for reconstruction, we wheeled patients to rooms in the main hospital ward and brought them back to the hospital the next day,” says Schmidt. “Many spoke only their tribal language, but they were all really sweet.”
    In Mwandi, termite clay was rolled into balls, both large and small, then smoothed to construct the huts. “One little boy tickled my ear with a feather while I was working on his hut,” says Petek. “He was so cute.”
    Deanhardt remembers Ariza, an 8-year-old girl who wore a dirty, Hello Kitty T-shirt for three days. Her Crocs shoes had holes in the bottoms. “She slipped a bracelet on my wrist,” says Deanhardt. “With virtually nothing, she had the capacity to give. It was such a special moment.”
    Petek and Roman met Kimberly who was 12 or 13 and dreamed of being a doctor. They know it is a daunting dream as life in rural Zambia is more a matter of survival than education.
    Two weeks in a foreign country. Wearing Crocs for surgery and hiking boots to build huts. Intermittent power outages. Playing board games in the evenings. Limited internet. Quick drying towels which stick to you. A day for river cruising. One day for a safari game ride. And lasting impressions.
    Deanhardt says she wants to help as many people as she can. When something is insignificant, “don’t cry over spilled mac and cheese.”
    At SFO, Petek announced to her dad she would “never complain about your cooking again!”
    They don’t know it, but Roman admitted she missed her two younger brothers.
    Phoebe Schmidt just wanted her own bed.
    For more information about Zimba Eye Hospital, go to www.IVVUSA.org.

(Contributed Photo)
(L-R) Ally Petek, Phoebe Schmidt, Natalia Roman and Bella Deanhardt await their flight from San Francisco to London, the first leg of an over 35-hour journey to Zimba, Zambia where the girls volunteered on a two-week service trip.

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