A Life-Changing Vision; Hannah Davies Speaks to One of the Region's Opticians on His Life-Changing Experience Teaching and Helping in Ethiopia
I'D wanted to do something a bit more, to give something back for a while," explains Blyth optician John Ludlow.
John, 41, has just returned from two exhausting, but satisfying weeks in Ethiopia which saw more than 2,000 people receive treatment for their eyes.
The Ethiopian Journal of Health Development Blindness says blindness and low vision are major public health problems in the countr y.
Ethiopia has decided to tackle its huge blindness problem by setting up an optometry course at The University of Gondor.
But, according to John, "they are lacking experienced teachers as there hasn't existed an official course previously. Those who have experience are usually self-taught."
John became involved with the project when he saw a few paragraphs in trade magazine "Optician" about Gondor University asking for people to help.
He explains: "I was attracted to them because they were really positive. Also the fact that you were leaving something behind you when you left really appealed to me.
"A lot of the time you go in to do something for a week or so, and then just leave. By receiving training, the students are able use that knowledge for ever."
Yorkshire-born John graduated from his optometry degree at Manchester University in 1989. He came to the North East shortly afterwards and has been working at Specsavers Opticians in Blyth, where he is now store director, for 15 years.
While John, who has travelled to more than 30 countries including Cambodia, Peru and Thailand, wasn't shocked by the illnesses in Ethiopia, he was shocked by the impact illnesses or minor conditions can have on people's day-to-day lives.
"It's hard to appreciate in the West the difference that reading glasses make to a person's life.
"While there are some facilities in Ethiopia, if you have no car or bus access, it is impossible for many people to get there."
Still John brought back many positive things from his experience.
"I thought in many ways they were very lucky. They still have a very strong social identity and time to spend with each other. A lot of the work is physically very hard, but in general, people seemed much happier than over here."
John smiles, and adds: "It is a great feeling knowing you can go somewhere and leave behind new skills."
John travelled to Ethiopia funded by Specsavers Opticians in Blyth. If you would like to make a donation to the University of Gondar via the store, please call (01670) 354000, or visit Specsavers Opticians, 5 Regent Street, Blyth, NE24 1LQ.
I Leave Newcastle at 5am to arrive in Ethiopia 2am the next day.
At Addis Ababa airport, I meet Gemma Peters who has set up the optometry course, arranged equipment, students and government recognition of the new qualification.
We head to the former capital of Gondar. It has an altitude of 2,600m so walking is an effort, and even with no heat, the temperature is brilliant after the weather in England. People are dressed mainly in western styles, some come in hijabs.
Christian-Muslim split is 50/ 50.
I leave my accommodation to go straight to supervise training in clinic. The students are quiet and ultra respectful towards me, they test a mixture of university professionals and people who have walked miles to be here from the countryside. I find I need to use kit I haven't seen for 20 years on patients with eyes worse than anything I see at home. I am learning more than the students. The power of some of the first pairs of glasses are three times stronger than anyone needs at home and they have never had a pair before, the faces are a mixture of shock and delight when they try on their new glasses for the first time.
I survived the morning's clinic and was taken to lunch by the two lecturers. I later found they don't normally have any break and work eight till six, they just hadn't wanted to scare me in the first few days. …