By Jessa McClure
As the sun sets in Sub-Saharan Africa, Stephenville ophthalmologist Dr. Trevor Kerr arrives back at his home away from home in a rural village in Swaziland. Although his tiny dwelling has electricity, the country’s stormy season has knocked out the power. The doctor switches on his headlamp before going inside so he can have enough light to prepare his evening meal.
For seven months, Kerr lived and worked in the African country, treating patients of every age and socio-economic status as part of a medical mission to Swaziland.
“I was put in contact with a South African ophthalmologist who was working there [in Swaziland]. I contacted him during my fellowship and agreed to go,” he said. “There were only two ophthalmologists working there when I arrived. We provided the bulk of the eye care for the country.”
Kerr worked in two different ophthalmology clinics during his seven-month mission—one in a more populated area and one in a rural setting. Throughout his time in the country, Kerr and his team treated thousands of patients. Some of their needs were simple, but others traveled miles on foot to seek care for injuries or severe vision impairment.
“There’s not really a good ambulance service, so some people would come into the clinic several days after an injury.”
Although the majority of the doctor’s patients were poverty-stricken, they did treat patients from surrounding countries that were from well-developed areas. This was surprising to Kerr who did not think patients would drive from the cities to a rural mission clinic.
“We served an area of 400,000 to 500,000 people, which included parts of South Africa and southern Mozambique,” he said. “We did have some wealthy patients from these areas who would drive to their appointments in fancy cars.”
Although some of his patients were from wealthier parts of the region, the majority of Kerr’s patients were poor and unaware of the simple procedures that could save them from a lifetime of struggle.
“There were people with cataracts who didn’t know why they were blind. They just knew they couldn’t see,” the ophthalmologist said. “We actually worked with a group that would identify people in the community who might have cataracts. We called them Cataract Case Finders. They would go out to rural parts of the country and identify people who were blind.”
Many of the older population in Swaziland do not realize there is a cure for their blindness, so they just simply stop participating in life. Kerr said this is a problem because a significant portion of the people between the ages of 30 and 50 have died of HIV and AIDS, leaving grandparents to take care of orphaned grandchildren.
“The grandchildren don’t understand that their grandparents cannot see? They don’t know how to ask and it’s not really respectful to ask their grandparents.”
So, Kerr and his team worked to identify these people and help them get the medical attention they needed.
“There are a lot of people around the world who are blind, but can have their vision improved with surgery,” he said. “This mission gave me the opportunity to help people with these issues and bring relief and supplies to the ophthalmologist who was working at the mission clinic in the country.”
Even though Kerr knew he would be living and working in a third world country, nothing could really prepare him for what he would face when he arrived.
“It’s very different than here,” Kerr said. “It was very discouraging to see the poverty and the effects HIV and AIDS have had on the region. There are a lot of orphans.”
“Being there taught me to value the resources we have here in the US,” he said. “It also allowed me to learn some techniques and skills I would not have had the opportunity to learn in a first world country.”
Kerr also said his time in Africa also reminded him why quality patient care is so important. This has helped to shape the practice he began when he returned from Swaziland.
“When I came back, I joined Stephenville Medical and Surgical Associates,” he said. “My practice is a combination of comprehensive ophthalmology, which is glaucoma, macular degeneration and cataracts, neuro-ophthalmology, which has to do with the connection between the brain and the eyes, and oculoplastics, which is surgeries related to the eyelids and the tear ducts.”
Kerr works with a few other ophthalmologists, including his brother, Dr. Kevin Kerr, who has also participated in medical missions.
“My family is very supportive,” Kerr said. “They were concerned about my health and well-being, but were overall supportive. I even had several family members visit me while I was there.”
The ophthalmologist’s family was supportive in part because they knew Kerr had always had an interest in the medical field and mission work in general.
“I love science and I love people, so medicine is a good combination of the two,” he said. “I had several family members who went into the medical field and I saw how much they were enjoying it. It made me interested in it as well. I knew I wanted to do medical mission work, and you can’t do medical mission work without some training.”
“It is well-suited because you can go in and make a huge quality of life difference in a very short period of time.”
He hopes to continue to make short-term trips around the world to give the gift of sight to the less fortunate.
“I actually went to [South America] this past spring to do some ophthalmology work on the Ecuador/Columbia border,” he said. “But I hope to go back to Swaziland so I can bring supplies. It’s hard for them to get supplies.”
The ophthalmologist also hopes he won’t be alone on the next mission trip.
“I always try to encourage my friends who are ophthalmologists to go [overseas] as well because it can make such a difference to people in these countries.”