Marmot Ambassadors Help Treat the Blind in South Sudan

While many Americans shopped for Christmas presents in December of 2011, Jordan Campbell sat in the blazing heat of South Sudan, putting antibiotic drops into the eyes of villagers who were treated for cataract blindness. Campbell is the public relations director and an Ambassador Athlete for Marmot, an outdoor gear and clothing company. He and another Marmot Ambassador, Ace Kvale, traveled to the village of Duk Payuel to assist ophthalmic surgeons Dr. Geoff Tabin and Dr. Alan Crandall who were on a five-day mission to treat as many people as possible in war-torn South Sudan, which gained its independence in July 2011.

Campbell worked down a long line of patients, administering drops to people who had walked as many as four days to reach the Duk Lost Boys Clinic. “I was going from person to person,” said Campbell, “and I came to this one guy…and I looked down.” Campbell suddenly noticed the man’s fingers were stubs, growing in wrong directions, and his skin was speckled black and white.  “He had full-blown leprosy,” said Campbell. “That’s when it really hit me just how poor and underserved these people are, and that I’m so lucky.”

We talked with Campbell about his South Sudan experience, and his role as a Marmot Ambassador Athlete.

The Adventure Post: Talk a bit about how you got involved with Dr. Tabin and Dr. Crandall and the effort to treat blindness in South Sudan.

Jordan Campbell: When I first started doing Himalayan climbing expeditions in 1992, a British climbing partner said we have a responsibility to do more than just climb mountains, shake hands with locals and leave. As I got older I thought about that more, and in 2002, when I finished a big expedition in Tibet, I hooked up with Dr. Tabin who was treating people with blindness in Nepal. He did nearly 300 cataract surgeries, and then we climbed a peak in the Khumbu area. Giving back was not an afterthought for the trip, but we put it in the forefront of the expedition, and people got really excited about it. And that’s how I got fired up about it and felt a connection to humanitarian relief work

TAP: Countries like South Sudan are suffering from all kinds of disease and violence. Why is treating blindness a priority?

Dr. Crandall and Dr. Tabin in South Sudan

JC: When you lose your sight in a place like South Sudan, you can’t provide for yourself and you can’t survive. About 20 million people in the world have treatable blindness. If they can see a qualified surgeon, they can get their life back.

TAP: Tell us more about the Marmot Ambassador Athlete program

JC: It’s in its infancy right now, and it’s a work in progress, but we want to provide support to social entrepreneurs and philanthropists. It grew out of working with people like Luan Freer, who helped found a medical clinic in Nepal, and Sean Swarner, a cancer survivor who climbed the seven summits and went on to establish The CancerClimber Association. It came from working with Jim Nowak, co-founder of the dZi Foundation (which helps communities in the Himalaya). There were all of these athletes and climbers who, as they got older, transitioned to doing stewardship. I was inspired to set up a program, sort of like the CNN Heroes, and support them.

TAP: What type of work were you doing to assist in South Sudan

JC: I don’t have formal medical training, so I would help blind people enter the clinic, and I would help screen them, do paperwork, dilate their eyes and escort them into the post-operative area and give them antibiotic drops. And we needed it to go like clockwork, because we were trying to treat as many people as possible — they did 288 surgeries in five days. I also tried to make people feel calm, because many of these people had never been to a doctor before.

TAP: In your National Geographic piece, you mention feeling nervous while flying into South Sudan because of all the recent violence there. How dangerous was the situation?

Jordan Campbell flies into South Sudan

JC: We basically flew into a looming war zone. I didn’t feel that we would run into violence between North Sudan and South Sudan, but there is still significant intertribal warfare in South Sudan. And just a few days before we got there, 40 people were killed in a village 100 miles from where we worked. The feuding is over cattle, land and water rights, and in the wake of the civil war, there are thousands of AK-47s in the hands of tribes. We had armed guards protecting us, and we felt pretty protected, but it was still unsettling. When we left, by the time we got to Nairobi, we heard that there was a raid on a village 150 miles south of where we were working, and 3,000 people were murdered

TAP: Do you think you’ll ever go back and do something like that trip again?

JC: About once a year I’d like to go to an underserved area – a disaster area or war zone – a place that is just not getting service. I’m very focused on tropical diseases because of what I saw in Africa – so malaria is something I will investigate more.

Dr. Tabin and a patient in South Sudan

TAP: Much of your early travel focused on adventure – mountaineering, things like that. Those can also be intense experiences. But how does that kind of travel compare to a trip that deals with social and medical issues?

JC: On climbing expeditions, your thoughts about challenges and risks are so omnipresent that it’s hard to really step back and examine these far-flung places you’re going to. A lot gets missed. When you shift your attention to global health care, what hits you is how important it is, and how it can be so much more important than climbing mountains. I still want to climb, but my values have shifted. Doing these trips is very rewarding, and I see it as a bigger part of my life.

To support efforts to eradicate preventable and curable blindness, visit www.cureblindness.org, and the website for the John A. Moran Eye Center.


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