When light encounters vision : the story of a woman at the head of Noor Foundation
Dc Manal Taryam, CEO of Noor Dubai Foundation and consultant Ophtalmologist at Dubai Hospital
One of the most resounding example of inspiring women of Dubai, Doctor Manal Omran Taryam tells about her mission to fight blindness around the world. Because if nothing was done, in 50 years, half the planet would be blind, she chose to become Dubai’s first female ophtalmologist and set up eye camps in developing countries for the Noor Foundation. INTERVIEW.
To reach become the first female ophtalmologist you had to study 15 years ?
Yes. I studied medicine at Dubai Medical College. Then I did one year internship at Dubai Hospital. I left for Cologne, Germany to do my residency program and fellowship in surgical retinology, nine years in total. I chose this specialty because there were no locals. I came back in 2006 to work as an ophtalmologist at the Dubai Hospital. I started to develop a new system for ophtalmology surgery with new machines and won an excellency award in 2007. I improved a lot the Ophtalmology Department. Then I joined for one year the National Committee for Preventing Blindness under the supervision of the Ministry of Health which was part of the initiative of the World Health Organization. His Highness Sheikh Mohammed wanted to contribute to the WHO Vision 2020 in a more personal way to fight blindness around the world so he created Noor Dubai, developing what was an initiative into an NGO. I was still working at the Dubai Hospital when they asked me to join the Advisory Team. I designed the Eye Camps and was then appointed Medical Director for those camps.
Where and how do you work ?
Initially, the patients were brought in, but we soon realized it would be too costly and heavy in terms of logistics. We decided to go abroad to treat the patients directly. That way we cure five times more people with half the budget. I was chosen as a Board Member and CEO. Between 2008 and 2012 we have been in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Togo, Yemen, Somalia… We train the local ophtalmologists and provide medicine, surgery and glasses. We helped 40 000 people in need in 2012. Another project with Qatar Foundation is to prevent river blindness, spread by the bite of black fly in Ethiopia, Cameroun, Mali and Ouganda. We also have a blind eye flying hospital, Orbis, a plane flying to provide training for medical staff and surgery at the same time.
What project did you set up in the UAE ?
Emiratis don’t need treatment from us because local people are given free medical care and expats are given treatments at very cheap rates. But we developped a program in UAE prisons : early detection of eye disease for prisoners. We conducted a study on diabetic prisoners. It is important to detect the disease early otherwise it makes irreversible damage. They get diagnosed every three months thanks to an electronical machine with a very accurate camera. This is a priority for them. It’s like having a doctor for 24 hours in the prison or a prison equiped with a five stars hospital. Our latest study shows that in Ajman only one patient needed treatment this year as well as Dubai. In Fujeirah and Sharjah, there were all taken care of. These excellent figures show how good the service is now in the prisons.
What other programms do you have in the UAE ?
We put out informative brochures but we add a fun element so people don’t throw them away. One of them is designed for diabetics : it has an eye test, the Amsler test, where you look with one eye to see whether the lines remain straight. It show how diabetes affects patients. The other one is for cataract : there is a pair of glasses in the brochure. By wearing them you experience how cataract patient see. We also have a new project with RTA (Road and Transport Authority) who donated a bus transformed into an eye hospital. It will travel around the UAE to give full treatment as a support for the preferral clinics. It is the same concept as the mobile eye clinics. To give a primary eye care support.
What visual impairment do you treat ?
It depends on the country. In Sudan we operate children because we have an anesthesist. But in Niger, we have to transport the children to the capital city to treat them. The majority of our patients are treated for cataract. It is the number one cause of blindness in the world and it’s easy : 10 minutes under anesthesia. But there are often no doctors and it’s expensive : 100 dollars. Unafoardable when your income is only 4 dollars a month. We also treat glaucoma, children blindness (1,4 million in the world), corneal opacities, diabetic retinopathy, river blindness, trochoma and refractive errors.
Are there countries which are more concerned ?
Pakistan accounts for 4% of the total blindness in the world. We go more then once a year. This is due to corruption, natural disasters… Pakistan is a 180 million population and there is 1,5 million blinds. Then Bangladesh has 800 000 blinds…
You just finished the Auction of Art4Sight, how did it go ?
We started this project three years ago : we use art to raise funds. Blinds can’t see the colors around and when we treat them suddenly they can see the art in the world. Pieces of arts are donated by artists. We auction them with Christies and the money raised is used to prevent blindness. To helping people who don’t have the chance to see art. It has been successfull the past three years. We raised 200 000 dhs in 2011 and 1,2 million this year. People are becoming more aware.
What does working for a charity brought to you ?
Every human being likes to help. It makes your life worth it. Each one of us has a career where he can help people. I could work as a physician and come back home at 2 :30, spend time with my cats and my family. But I use my job to help people. It makes you feel better : you are giving something back to the world. It’s not just a job. It’s giving a gift for no reason. The reward is bigger.
Are you going on the field ?
Yes. I sometimes operate but most of the time I manage to ensure the success of the eye camps. We treat between 6000 and 9000 patients in 10 days. When you remove the pad, the smile, the happiness… The reward is the self-satisfaction.
Do you inspire people to get involved into charity ?
We already do that by the On-Line Volunteer program. We have the youngest volunteer of the UAE. He started at 6. His name is Khaled. His father is an ophtalmologist and his mother a pediatrician. I studied with them in Germany. We were having our Ramadan breakfats when I had to leave for a program with students from Zayed University. He asked to join.
Do people take things too much for granted in this very materialistic society ?
Yes but it is improving. The first feedback we got from the public showed they were not aware of what is going on in the world. Some people were asking for cosmetic surgery! But because of our brochures, the awareness, they understand more the concepts of volunteering, giving back to society, inspiration and donations. The first year we did not receive much. In 2009 our main sponsor was still the Dubai Islamic Bank. But last year we raised around 5 millions dhs and a lot came from individual donations.
How is the scope of the blindness in the world ?
A person goes blind every 5 second and a child every minute. If nothing was done, in 50 years, half the planet would be blind. But 80% of the blindness is curable. There are so many causes you can work on but blindness is important. It’s not only about being blind, it’s not being able to go to school, to study, to work and have another member of the family to take care of you. In certain countries like Pakistan people think blindness is black magic : they lock up blinds, prevent them from taking care of their kids. So not only are they visually isolated but socially as well. In certain countries in Africa, treatment money is given to men because they think they are worth more than women.
You are saying that women have less chances to get treated then men ?
Yes. Actually there are only women in my team and this helps charity to be given equally.
Was that a choice to have only women in your team?
No, it just happened. But they want to stay and serve the cause. They love the camps. If you know how much burden it is to have a blind person in a community and how costly it is for the country… Our work is not only to give treatment but we are also improving the quality of life.
How much does this blindness cost as a country?
With the Vision 2020 initiative the world saves 2.1billion dollars annually through the treatment and prevention programs of blindness prevention. We are saving a lot of money by providing surgery. It helps the poorest communities to save money. It is much cheaper than to provide treatment.
Are women more driven to charity then men ?
The passion is equal but women find more time. We work as much but we are more persistent and better at managing our time. No matter how busy a woman is, she’ll find the time. She is multitasking. Women are also more emotional about it.
Do you still have time for your family life ?
I am not married but I live with my parents : my mother is Vice Chancellor at the American University in Sharjah and my father who worked at the Ministry of Interior is retired. I like family life, having all my nieces and nephews around me.
Why did you chose to study in Germany ?
I just had the opportunity. Originally I wanted to go to the US. I did not even know how to say hello when I arrived. I loved it. There was so much respect between people. I could wear my abaya and be respected as a person. My mother studied in the UK, so I had been abroad before. My sister is doing the FIFA master class in Switzerland. She wants to bring something new to football here. It’s a passion.
It’s like everyone wants to bring something special from abroad back here to enhance professionalism ?
Here, everything is constantly changing, improving. We are always given new opportunities. So it is our turn to expand, to help the country grow, bring a better lifestyle to the people in all possible fields.
Do you sincerely believe men and women are treated equally ?
People think because we are Arab women, that we don’t have the same rights. I actually do worry sometimes about men that we will take over one day. The other day, Sheikh Mohammed said the majority of his staff were women. It’s not about men or women, it’s about people who want to work in a better way. Everything takes place on the personal level : it’s about the effort you put in. If you are sitting at home waiting, things will not come to you. This is the spirit of the UAE : « Go out and get it ! » It’s a hub for successful people. You get opportunities but you need to respect the culture and the beliefs of the country. In some of our eye camps, they are all Christians but we receive a warm welcome because it’s all about respect. Respect leads to success.
For more info :
Causes of blindness in the world
An opacity that develops in the crystalline lens of the eye
47,9% of total blindness
A group of disease of the optic nerve
Number of blind children in the world : 1,4 million
Refractive errors : 800 millions to 2,3 billions
Corneal opacities :
A condition in which the transparent cornea of an eye becomes opaque
5,1% of global blindness
River blindness (onchocerciasis) :
Parasite infection that spreads to humans through the bite of the black fly
18 millions infected and 270 000 cases of blindness related
Diabetic retinopathy : cause of 4,8% of blindness in the world
An infectious disease cause by a baterium
40 millions and 8 millions visually impaired as a result
Source : Noor Dubai Foundation
Other interesting figures
Based on the latest estimates, a child goes blind every minute and an adult every 5 seconds.
The latest worldwide estimates from the World Health Organization (WHO) state that over 285 million people are visually impaired.
Of those, 39 million are blind and 246 million have low vision.
Visual disability is a growing threat
Visual Disability and Poverty:
Greater than 90% of the world's visually impaired live in developing countries.
Over 90% of blind individuals live in areas with no access to quality eye care at an affordable price.
Although 82% of blind people are aged 50 years or older,
Over 1.4 million children below the age of 15 are blind.
Vitamin A deficiency is a prevalent cause of preventable blindness in children.
Females are at significantly higher risk of being visually impaired than males.
Source : Noor Dubai Foundation