Eye surgery attempts to reverse years of blindness for Syrian refugee

A stranger’s kindness brought Anas Schichmouse to Canada, now it might save his eyesight

“Anas’s case is very special for me, I have a great sympathy for the folks in Syria for the terrible problems they have had,” said Dr. Simon Holland. ( Brian Smith – St. Paul’s Hospital Foundation )

Cutting an incision into a human eyeball isn’t for the faint of heart.

But it’s part of the daily routine in the eye surgery ward at Vancouver’s Mount Saint Joseph Hospital.

On a recent weekday, waiting for a sedative to kick in, Anas Schichmouse lay flat on a hospital bed just outside the operating room.

One eye was covered with a white patch and bandages. The centre of the other pupil was completely clouded.

Speaking through a translator, the blind man said he feared he might never see again.

He had surgery for his genetic condition in 2006, but it didn’t work. His eyesight grew worse and he ended up going completely blind.

Doctors determined Schichmouse required treatment as soon as possible. ( Brian Smith – St. Paul’s Hospital Foundation )

A change in fortune

Civil war tore Syria — and his family — apart.

His three sisters ended up in Vancouver and Schichmouse was alone in a refugee camp in Northern Iraq.

In May, his luck changed. An American benefactor fed up with U.S. President Donald Trump’s immigration policies put up tens of thousands of dollars to help bring Schichmouse to Canada.

He soon was in the office of eye surgeon Dr. Simon Holland, who decided he needed an operation as soon as possible.

A stranger’s kindness brought Anas Schichmouse to Canada. Now, it might save his eyesight. 1:03

It was time to see if Schichmouse’s vision could be saved.

Schichmouse was wheeled into the operating room, sedated but conscious.

A special tool cut into the cornea — the outer layer that should be clear, but in this case was opaque.

It was removed and replaced with a donated cornea from a cadaver.

Then doctors used a tiny needle to make delicate stitches around the edge.

A family reunited

In the waiting room, his sister Camile Siho hoped for the best.

“I want to thank everyone who worked to help my brother and I appreciate everyone.”

Another sister, Serin, arrived in Canada earlier, also blind from the same genetic condition.

But doctors say it’s too late to restore her vision.

“I’m a bit nervous about the surgery but at the same time [I’m] optimistic because we are in this country, great country, Canada,” Camile translates for her.

Heyfe Sehmus, Camile Siho, and Serin Sehmus wait for word on their brother’s eye surgery. ( Brian Smith – St. Paul’s Hospital Foundation )

After the operation, Holland said he, too, is optimistic.

“It went well, we thought we’d have to do more,” he said, explaining they didn’t have to replace the lens as well as the cornea.

He said the case is a reminder of the work he did on the Syria-Iraq border in 2009 as part of an eyesight charity called Orbis.

“Anas’s case is very special for me, I have a great sympathy for the folks in Syria, for the terrible problems they have had and it’s nice to reconnect and special to help a Syrian patient.”

But now it’s a waiting game to see if the surgery worked.

Moment of truth

The next day, Schichmouse was led into an exam room, his eye heavily bandaged.

The bandages were removed and Holland encouraged him to open his eye.

“See any movement there?” Holland asked, waving two fingers in front of him.

“Two,” comes the answer, a beautiful sound to everyone in the room.

“Okay, all right, he does seem to be able to see something,” Holland said before moving on to other tests.

“He’s at the level where most patients see who’ve had a corneal transplant, so that’s very expected, it’s a good sign because he probably doesn’t have a significant problem at the back of the eye. He should be fine.”

Schichmouse feared he might never see again. (Greg Rasmussen/CBC)

It was an emotional moment for everyone in the room, particularly Schichmouse.

“I was very happy, almost about to cry,” he said through a translator.

Now his eye has to heal, but his vision should grow sharper in the days ahead.

There are still obstacles ahead. He needs to work on his English, and hopes to resume the studies in law he began in Syria, but was forced to abandon.

But after years of darkness on so many levels; a fractured family, civil war, blindness, he now has a future framed by hope, and light.

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