Tech to restore sight and other treatment give hope

 One evening in May last year, Ms Namale Allen was at her home in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda, when she heard a male voice asking her to go outside.

Then five months pregnant, the 26-year-old hairdresser went to check who it was, carrying her four-year-old daughter on her hip.

What happened next turned her life into a nightmare. An attacker flung a copious amount of acid on her, practically melting her face, chest, neck, shoulders and back. Her daughter also suffered burns but not as severely.

Both Ms Allen and the baby she was carrying survived. But her disfigurements were horrifying. Her nose had collapsed and she is now blind. What were once her eyes are now two pin-sized holes from which tears would flow.

Her plight came to the attention of humanitarian and social activist Lynsay Lewis, 34, who took her to medical professionals and eye specialists all over Uganda, none of whom could help to save her sight.

A series of coincidences, however, may see her and Ms Allen in Singapore where Professor Donald Tan, one of the country’s most eminent eye surgeons, has offered to review her case and, if need be, operate on her, pro bono.

Prof Tan is one of the world’s best at osteo-odonto-keratoprosthesis (OOKP), a highly complex procedure which involves reconstructing a new eye by using a tiny plastic lens and one of the patient’s own teeth. The procedure is believed to be the only one which offers Ms Allen a shot at recovering her sight.

A team of plastic surgeons at Tan Tock Seng Hospital has also offered to look at her other injuries, which have robbed her of her nostrils and severely affected her mobility.

Her shot at regaining her sight came via lawyer-turned-chef Willin Low, a keen supporter of Morning Star, a children’s charity co-founded by Ms Lewis.

Ms Lewis – who met Ms Allen six weeks after the attack – had asked Mr Low to help with the acid victim’s medical expenses and kept him updated of her condition.

As luck would have it, one of the chef’s regular clients was eye surgeon Wong Hong Tym, 47.

When told of Ms Allen’s plight, Dr Wong suggested approaching Prof Tan, a founding doctor of the Singapore National Eye Centre.

Mr Low, 43, said: “It was strange but that night, while I was at home, I saw a documentary on Prof Tan. Perhaps this was meant to be.”

With Ms Lewis’ help, Dr Wong obtained Ms Allen’s MRI scans and pictures of her injuries, and reviewed them with Prof Tan, 55.

“Prof Tan has kindly agreed to see her and, if her case is suitable for surgery, has offered to operate on her, pro bono,” said Dr Wong, who has also rallied a team of plastic surgeons willing to look into Ms Allen’s other injuries.

Prof Tan, who is the Arthur Lim Professor in Ophthalmology at Duke-National University of Singapore Graduate Medical School, is guarded when asked what the victim’s chances are.

“She has no eyelids because of her skin grafts but we are not worried about that because we can reconstruct everything. But her eyeballs look small and shrunken, which is not a good sign,” he said, adding that a lot depends on the extent of damage to her nerves and retina functions.

What is less grim, he said, is the fact that she can still perceive light through her skin grafts.

He has performed 54 OOKP operations in the last 11 years, on patients from countries such as the United States, Australia and the Middle East. There are two stages to the procedure.

In the first stage, a tooth is extracted from the patient, drilled to allow implantation of an artificial plastic cornea before it is embedded back into the cheek of the patient. A large piece of cheek mucosa is then removed, the eyelid opened, and the cheek mucosa embedded on the eyeball.

“After two months, when the cheek mucosa has grown and healed in place, we take out the tooth, embed it into the cheek right in front of where the cornea is. There is now a plastic cornea which allows the patient to see, held by the tooth and the cheek skin,” he explained.

Ms Lewis has gone on Facebook trying to raise the US$10,000 (S$14,000) needed for Ms Allen to come to Singapore.

“Right now, what keeps her going is her faith and belief that she will see again. She believes and hopes for this with all her heart,” Ms Lewis said.

It is not known who attacked Ms Allen and why. After the attack, she was taken to a government hospital in Kampala. Because she was pregnant, her burns were not grafted immediately. Complications and infections, including sepsis, set in. Nine weeks after her attack, she gave birth to another daughter. Her husband was not around during the attack and has since abandoned the family.

“Initially, she fought hard and did not contemplate suicide but then, there was no way to do so. She was completely restrained to a bed and she could not do anything alone, even move off her bed,” said Ms Lewis. “It was not until last August, when a doctor told us we would have to remove her eyes, when she first began talking about suicide.”

She added: “When I met Allen, I knew two things: One, no one was going to help her and, two, if I began, there was no walking away.”