A case of the measles when she was just 6 months old left Jarai Bah nearly blind, with the corneas in both eyes scarred white.
Now 7, the Sierra Leone native has regained much of her vision in one eye and some of her brown eye color thanks to two free surgeries performed by an ophthalmologist at Washington Adventist Hospital in Takoma Park and orchestrated by a relative living in the United States.
“We are so happy now,” said Juldeh Bah, Jarai’s mother, who has been in the country for seven months with her daughter.
Last May, in the first operation, Stephen Ginsberg transplanted a new cornea into Jarai’s right eye, improving her vision from between 20-200 and 20-400 to between 20-80 and 20-100, he said. He also removed white scar tissue. She has no vision in her left eye, but in a second procedure Feb. 6, Ginsberg straightened the muscles behind that eye to keep it from drifting, as happens after years without use, and injected it with dye to improve its color.
Early in the decade, a civil war in Sierra Leone forced Jarai’s parents to flee with Jarai and her older brother to neighboring Guinea. There, Jarai contracted measles and suffered corneal scarring, in which transparent tissue that covers the eye and lets in light becomes dried and covered in white scar tissue. Corneal scarring is the most common cause of childhood blindness.
When the family returned to Sierra Leone, doctors were unable to help Jarai and, at first, wrongly diagnosed cataracts.
“We never had a good doctor to take care of her,” said Juldeh Bah. Without proper medical treatment, it seemed unlikely that Jarai’s condition would ever improve.
But last year, the family was visited by Henry Sloe, a cousin of Jarai’s father, who left Sierra Leone in 1996 and lives in Glenn Dale in Prince George’s County. Sloe said he would find a way to help.
When he returned to the United States, Sloe approached Ginsberg, a resident at Somerset House, a condominium complex in Chevy Chase where Sloe is director of operations. Ginsberg specializes in corneal transplants.
“He said, ‘If you can get her here, I’ll do the surgery,’ “ Sloe recalled.
Getting Jarai and her mother to the United States took some work, Sloe said, but he secured a humanitarian visa with the help of a lawyer and congressional staffer who lived at Somerset. Residents at Somerset donated more than $11,000 for airfare and expenses, said Sloe, who has housed Jarai and her mother for the past seven months.
On Feb. 6, the day of the second surgery, Jarai, her mother and Sloe sat in a waiting room at Washington Adventist, where they are now well known to the staff.