story by jordan campbell | August 6, 2013 | Lifestyle
Jordan Campbell travels to Duk County.
Dr. Geoff Tabin is bringing sight—and renewed joy—to villagers like Lepor.
Campbell leads Lonnie, a patient, into the clinic.
A blind boy in South Sudan receives eye care, thanks to a mission by clothing and sporting goods company Marmot.
In a remote corner of Africa, a patient undergoes state-of-the-art cataract surgery.
Founder of the Ambassador Athlete program for outdoor clothing and sporting goods company Marmot, Jordan Campbell is also the director of a new documentary titled Duk County, which recounts a pioneering eye-care mission into a remote region of South Sudan—the world’s newest country. Campbell’s social stewardship celebrates Marmot’s global philanthropic endeavors as he gives a firsthand account of his experience in Africa.
Flying into South Sudan was like cracking into the first few pages of an Ernest Hemingway novel: You knew the adventure would be grand, the lessons learned would be timeless and important, and the story would be totally unforgettable.
I’m crammed into a tiny aircraft next to Dr. Geoff Tabin and Dr. Alan Crandall, both superstars in the movement to deliver modern eye care to the isolated corners of the developing world. Tabin in particular has achieved renown for successfully setting up temporary surgical “eye camps”—marked by their high medical standards for sterility and procedure—in some of the most remote locations in Asia and Africa.
Crandall is a leading ophthalmologist in North America and has been chasing the South Sudan opportunity for years. We’re headed into the underserved region of Duk County, where thousands of people affected by years of civil war have limited access to basic healthcare. Tabin and Crandall’s ultimate goal is to treat as many cases as possible of unnecessary cataract blindness—which is widespread in the region—in an audacious five-day mission.
I had known about Sudan’s 40-year civil conflict, of millions killed or displaced in Darfur, and how the country has emerged as the embodiment of Africa’s greatest challenges, including disease, famine, corruption, and genocide. Although South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011, there is a new and looming concern: In the fog of decades of civil war, thousands of AK-47 rifles have fallen into the hands of South Sudan’s warring ethnic tribes. Flashes of deadly violence over cattle, land, and water erupt without warning. In 2009, more than 160 tribesmen were killed over cattle in a massacre just 20 miles from our final destination.
If South Sudan is a gaping hole for the blind and underserved, Duk County is ground zero. This medical mission represents a moral imperative to alleviate unnecessary blindness, but for me personally it marks a transfer of values in my own adventure life. For more than two decades, I’ve been climbing and skiing mountains around the world. My global adventures have been magnificent privileges, but they’ve also exposed the broken and downtrodden human condition. Global stewardship has evolved into my next big undertaking—and for this mission, it’s all about helping people marginalized by war.
The anxiety is palpable as we touch down on a dirt airstrip near the village of Duk Payuel. As the plane comes to a stop, local villagers greet us enthusiastically. Standing tall over all of them in a pressed button-down shirt and slacks is 6-foot-8 John Dau—one of the original “lost boys” of Sudan. Dau was separated from his village for years as a result of Sudan’s civil war, but today he’s the founder of the Duk Lost Boys Clinic, which treats everything from cobra bites to gunshot wounds. Our medical support team quickly begins preparations for surgery in the makeshift operating rooms inside the clinic. Within the hour both Tabin and Crandall are ready for their first patients.
We’re wilting in the afternoon sun. Black flies rule the airspace, and vultures crouch near the front of the clinic. Dinka, Nuer, and other tribesmen from the surrounding villages gather outside; one elderly woman has walked more than 80 kilometers with her 2-year-old granddaughter. The flow of patients begins with Lonnie, a frail Dinka man blinded from bilateral cataracts. I lead him into the clinic’s dark hallway and administer eye drops to dilate his pupils. He’s prepped for surgery and carefully led onto Tabin’s operating table.
Tabin peers through his microscope, fixed on Lonnie’s cornea. Using tiny handheld instruments—and with stealth precision—he delicately removes one of the clouded lenses that has blinded the man for years. Lonnie has advanced cataracts, which are rarely seen in North America and Europe, but are common in the developing world, where doctors are often nonexistent. Tabin discards the biomass and, with masterful skill, replaces it with a new synthetic lens. This astounding procedure takes only 10 minutes yet will provide Lonnie with near-perfect vision for the rest of his life—elevating another South Sudanese from total blindness back into a life with sight.
The following morning we gather with our patients outside the clinic. This is the moment we have all been awaiting. Tabin and Crandall begin removing the bandages from the eyes of dozens of their patients. As the white gauze is pulled back, the miraculous gift of sight illuminates their faces with joy, including Lonnie’s. He will soon return home to see his granddaughter for the first time. These steadfast miracle doctors, with the support of our entire team, have given Lonnie and many others in South Sudan their lives back. There will be more days and long hours of work ahead, but for the moment, euphoria envelops me and I feel a deep sense of satisfaction. This is why I came.
photography by jordan campbell