Jewel Sandy, MD, is a woman on a mission. Literally.
Sandy, an ophthalmologist at Trinity Health Western Dakota, Williston, traveled to Sierra Leone in March and led a team of ophthalmologists through a global ophthalmology program to address eyecare needs in an underserved area. During their time in country, the team completed over 200 cataract and oculoplastic surgeries for eyelid tumors, restoring sight to the blind.
Sandy, originally from Sierra Leone, came to the United States at age 12 with her family. Her mother, an employee at a non-governmental organization, had obtained a fellowship for further studies in Public Health. When the fellowship ended, Sierra Leone was mired in an 11-year civil war, so the family never returned. But Sandy never forgot her home.
“Growing up in a poor country and seeing lots of suffering from sickness and lack of access to care, fueled my desire to become a physician,” she said. “I always knew mission work and serving the underserved would become a passion of mine, a desire that grew from my childhood experiences.”
Sierra Leone is located on the west coast of Africa, with a population of 8.6 million and a land mass slightly smaller than South Carolina. It is an agrarian country with rich soil and plentiful rainfall, making agriculture, fisheries and forestry critical to its economy. However, the country is not self-sufficient in food production and life expectancy is less than 59 years. While resource rich (diamonds, bauxite, rutile) and geographically beautiful (imagine hills and mountains meet mangrove-fringed beaches), Sierra Leone is one of the poorest sub-Saharan African countries with a lacking healthcare system and a high prevalence of blindness.
In 2019, the World Health Organization launched the first World Report on Vision (WHO 2019) to draw attention to the increasing need for eye care globally. The report highlighted the role of eye care in contributing to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and called for coordinated global action toward strengthening eye care in health systems. Globally, at least 2.2 billion have near or distance vision impairment and at least half of these cases could have been prevented or have yet to be addressed. The leading causes of vision impairment and blindness are uncorrected refractive errors (needing glasses) and cataracts, both of which are treatable. Interventions such as corrective lenses and cataract surgery are among the most cost-effective and feasible of all heathcare interventions.
The World Report on Vision also highlights that the prevalence of blindness in low and middle-income regions, such as sub-Saharan Africa, is estimated to be four times higher than high-income regions, such as the United States. In 2020, the WHO established eye care as an integral part of Universal Health Coverage (UHC) in order to address the inequities in access to eye care services across the world with a targeted completion date of 2030.
Sandy was originally drawn to neurosurgery in medical school but changed course to ophthalmology when she realized eye care and surgical treatments to cure blindness required fewer resources and provided easier access for sustainable options to more people worldwide.
“The WHO resolution positioned blindness on the world stage to be recognized as a primary care issue that is preventable and treatable. Ophthalmology lends itself to do meaningful work in a short period of time and make a lasting impact,” she said.
Sandy came to Western Dakota in late 2021 to allow her the opportunity to serve unmet needs in both western North Dakota and other areas of the world.
“I trained and lived in all parts of the country, but was ready for a change of pace, so here I am,” she said. “Practicing in a smaller community will allow me to grow professionally and serve in an area where there is a need. Trinity Health has been very supportive of my global ambitions, and I am excited to see how I can contribute on a local scale.”
Sandy is a board-certified and fellowship-trained Oculoplastics Specialist. Oculoplastic surgeons are ophthalmologists who specialize in plastic and reconstructive surgery of the periorbital and facial tissues including the eyelids, eyebrows, forehead, cheeks, orbit (bony cavity around the eye) and lacrimal (tear) system. She is trained to do a variety of eyelid and facial surgery for adults and children. Sandy is located at Trinity Health Western Dakota, 1321 W Dakota Pkwy. To make an appointment, call 701-572-7641.