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Issue:- 02 January 2015

Optometrist swaps Birkenhead for African experience

The eye unit at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Malawi.

A Wirral optometrist who has been volunteering at a Malawi hospital for the past 3 months has spoken of the challenges he is seeing.  James McNeely, who ordinarily works at Specsavers in Pyramids Shopping Centre, Birkenhead, has swapped the UK winter for the stifling heat of Africa where he is volunteering in a City hospital.

The optometrist has taken a year's leave from his role at the Birkenhead Specsavers and, together with his girlfriend, the pair are currently working at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in the African country of Malawi where they are facing very different challenges every day.

Battling regular power cuts, water shortages, daily 32 degree temperatures and an underfunded hospital that serves over 4,000,000 people, has certainly given both of them a new perspective on their lives and jobs on the Wirral.

The eye unit at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Malawi.

James, aged 29, said:- "It has definitely made me appreciate what we have so much more. The hospital is very limited in resources and the Government funding is limited and topped up by EU countries. It has really made me acknowledge how good our NHS is."

James normally lives in Wavertree, Liverpool, with girlfriend Dr Rachel Tildesley, but the couple are now staying in accommodation provided by a friend who is the cousin of 1 of James' African colleagues.

The environment has been challenging for both of them since they arrived in September, leaving a cool autumnal Wirral for a hot and humid Africa.

James said:- "We're in the rainy season now but it is still just as hot, even at night, so now it's quite humid too. The air conditioning is always breaking so it is quite tough but you do get used to it after a while."

Rachel, aged 31, has taken leave from her job at Arrowe Park Hospital, where she works as an Obstetric and Gynaecology Registrar. Along with the consultants and midwives at Arrowe Park she is helping to setup up a longstanding partnership between the 2 units at the different hospitals.

James said:- "It is a bit of a mix. Some days we have people presenting with the same sort of things we would see in Specsavers every day and then another day I'll see in 1 day the range of things I would see in a year in Birkenhead. There is a different mentality here too. People don't go to the hospital automatically so you have people with an eye infection that could have been cleared up if they'd come in straight away, but they wait a month and then come by which time you end up having to remove an eye. That can be really hard, especially when it's a child. A lot of patients are HIV positive too which makes it harder again. We have one woman on the ward who has been here 6 months, but she lives so far away that it would be really difficult for her to come back so we need to know she is absolutely fine before she goes home."

It is a far cry from Specsavers in Pyramids Shopping Centre, which is home to the latest technology and techniques to look after customer eye health, but James is in regular contact with his former colleagues who have even sent parcels of much needed equipment over to him in Africa. He said:- "They've been great and very supportive of me. My job is there for me when we get back and they've been sending all sorts over, even simple things like bulbs that would take us weeks to get."

Ken Roberts, who is a partner in both the Specsavers stores in both Birkenhead and the Cherry Tree Centre in Wallasey, said:- "We are very proud of what James is achieving in Malawi and are all for helping our team to develop their skills and experiences. While the conditions out in Malawi are very different from James' usual workplace with us, I feel sure he will learn so much while he is there which can only benefit our business and the high service we strive to provide for our customers. It has been fascinating to hear of the challenges which James and his girlfriend Rachel have been facing and we will continue to support them in anyway we can."

James by Victoria Falls in Zambia.

James and Rachel are about halfway through their 8 month stint at the hospital, after which they plan to travel together for 4 months before returning to their lives and jobs back home.

James said:- "It has been a good experience for us. Obviously it is quite challenging at times, but the Malawians are lovely. They are such a kind and friendly community and they would give you everything they have, even when they really have nothing. I think it will be good for our careers and make us much better medics all round, as well as much more rounded as people."

James is pictured treating patients at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital.

For an eye test, your new pair of glasses or advice on eye health visits Specsavers Opticians in Pyramids Shopping Centre, Birkenhead, (0151 650 1666) or the Cherry Tree Centre in Wallasey, (0151638 3341) or visit:-

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