Life in Zimbabwe, where more people have HIV than full-time jobs, would hardly be recognizable to many in the suburbs of Morrisville.
But Keith Holshausen is trying to connect the two. A native of Zimbabwe, Holshausen is spearheading the Morrisville Rotary Club’s push to raise money for a medical project that serves the impoverished country in southern Africa.
Holshausen, now an American citizen, moved to the Triangle about 12 years ago and runs a travel agency with his wife, Su. They came here to escape the political upheaval and economic collapse of Zimbabwe under the leadership of dictator Robert Mugabe.
Holshausen said he hopes his fellow Rotarians can help the Zimbabwe Medical Project make meaningful changes in his former country.
The Zimbabwe Medical Project, a joint effort between a group of eye doctors from Seattle and radiologists from Duke University, operates in the country’s particularly impoverished western states.
“Those people are very marginalized,” Holshausen said. “So if we don’t help them, who will?”
The Morrisville Rotary Club adopted the cause in August and partnered with a Rotary Club in Africa’s Victoria Falls area, where Holshausen has contacts from his travel business.
The clubs hope to raise $30,000 in time for the next Zimbabwe Medical Project trip, in July 2015.
“We’re expecting to see 1,000 to 2,000 patients,” Holshausen said. “It’s quite a substantial project.”
The team will conduct cataract surgeries and other procedures to restore sight to locals who have gone blind due to preventable causes. An estimated 125,000 people in Zimbabwe have gone blind from preventable causes like cataracts and malnutrition.
Volunteers also hope to pass out hundreds of pairs of donated glasses and give vitamin A supplements to children.
“There are tremendous vitamin A shortages there, and the children get retinal scars and go blind,” Holshausen said.
According to the Zimbabwe Medical Project, the focus on preventing and reversing blindness will have direct socioeconomic benefits.
In a country where more than half of the population is under the age of 15 due to the high AIDS mortality rate, the group says restoring sight to adults will help them take care of their families.
“These (blind) adults, who are otherwise a burden on their families and require a member of the family to help them stay alive, can go back to being fully functioning adult members of their families,” the group’s website states.
The country has one of the highest literacy rates in Africa but also the world’s highest underemployment rate, at 95 percent, according to the CIA World Factbook.
“It’s a lovely population, well-educated, but they’re desperately in need of help,” Holshausen said.
The high education rate does give him hope, he said, for another goal of the medical project – to train local doctors and nurses so the country’s medical needs aren’t as reliant on Western charity.
That has also been a key focus of the Duke team, led by Dr. Thomas Hash, an assistant professor of radiology, and Dr. Jessica Stewart, a radiologist.
Earlier this year, they participated in more than 20 conferences in Zimbabwe with doctors and medical students, giving lessons on interpreting X-rays, CT scans, ultrasounds and MRIs.
The Duke experts have kept up the partnership by reviewing and commenting on studies from their African colleagues online.
“We believe this initiative will serve as a platform for further academic interaction,” the Zimbabwe Medical Project states on its website.