x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Doctor to take mission trip

The Dubai resident travels to the poorest parts of Palestine annually, since 1999, with his roving eye clinic.

Dr Ali Dabbagh, at his house in Al Satwa, Dubai, will leave on Saturday to help treat people with eye problems in the Palestinian Territories.
Dr Ali Dabbagh, at his house in Al Satwa, Dubai, will leave on Saturday to help treat people with eye problems in the Palestinian Territories.

Dr Ali Dabbagh wants to use his experience in some of the world's top eye hospitals to give something back. "It's a case of doing the right thing for people who need all the help they can get," said the Dubai resident, who is setting up a roving eye clinic in the Palestinian Territories to help people in some of the poorest and most remote areas. For the past 25 years, Dr Dabbagh, who was born in Kuwait to Palestinian parents, has worked in some of the world's top eye hospitals, including Royal Oldham Hospital in England and the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland.

Now, he wants to help people in a country where three-quarters of the population earn just Dh7 (US$2) a day and have little access to even the most basic health care. Dr Dabbagh, 53, who leaves for the Palestinian Territories on Saturday, will take a bus and a trained team with him to treat those with eye problems, which in many cases can lead to blindness. His focus will be to care for diabetes-related sight conditions.

"Diabetes is a big problem and the second-most common cause of blindness if it goes undetected or untreated," he said. "Trachoma is the most common cause. It costs just Dh3.5 (US$1) to treat, but in the climate of Palestine it is not high on the priority list. "Red eye and infections will be two of the things I'll be looking out for because these things can lead to more major problems." There are two eye surgeons in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, but Dr Ali said there was a dire shortage of eye doctors to look after the population of four million. "The cost of treatment and surgery is way out of the reach of the average Palestinian," he added.

The clinic will be based in Ramallah, but will travel to towns including Nablus and Jenin, as well as more remote villages. "It's a similar concept to the breast screening units in the UK and other parts of the world," said Dr Dabbagh. "I want to be the catalyst and then hand over to someone after a few months. I want this to be an ongoing project that can help these people in the long term." He said it had been a long-term mission.

"I've had access to education and basic necessities such as health care, which I have always been lucky enough to take for granted," he added. "I am just taking advantage of a time in my life where I can focus on a new, fulfilling project and go back to my roots all at the same time." He will be leaving his wife, Sana, and their four children behind, but says this is a small price to pay. "They're not exactly over the moon that I'm leaving, but they understand this is a worthwhile cause," he said. "They think I'm mad, but they're very supportive."

Dr Dabbagh expects to be away for at least a month. It is the longest he will have been away from his family, but he says it is good to give something back. He is now trying to gather the equipment needed, from basics such as needles, bandages and medication, to a slit lamp for examining eyes and a laser machine for specialist treatments. Dr Dabbagh, who visited the Palestinian Territories for the first time in 1999, said the trip was a life-changing experience and a catalyst to what he was doing now.

"It left a big impression," said the doctor, who has been every year since. "It went from being an emotional thing to a reality. "It was positive, but hard too. You may not be in Palestine, but Palestine is with you all the time." @Email:mswan@thenational.ae