Updated: Sep 15
Dr. Elie Abbey's Journey as an Eye Doctor, Transforming Lives in Africa
“I remind myself that complaining doesn't solve anything; instead, it's about taking responsibility and doing my best. Complaining is not a solution; taking responsibility and accepting situations that cannot be changed is the real path to achieving my goals.”
Dr. Elie Abbey
Resilience takes many forms. In this interview, Dr. Elie Abbey, an eye doctor in Togo, Africa, shares his journey, discussing his decision to become an eye doctor and his daily challenges. Visual impairment and blindness are major public health issues worldwide, especially in low- and middle-income countries, according to the World Health Organization. In West Africa, blindness prevalence is a pressing concern.
Stephen Matini: So how are you, Dr. Abbey? How's your day been?
Dr. Elie Abbey: I have had a great day. I was operating this morning. I just finished, I changed place because, you know, in the morning I used to work in another hospital, but now I operate at my own facility. I finished operating at 1:30 PM. It's currently 3:30 here.
SM: How do you keep the stress of being a doctor down?
Dr. EA: I think it's because I love doing this job. I pay attention to not getting too involved, and I take care of work-life balance. I also manage my time to engage in different activities like playing tennis, writing, and being involved in various pursuits.
SM: Have you always known that you wanted to be a doctor?
Dr. EA: No, not at first. We have a system here in Togo similar to the "A level." It's three years before university. After those three years, we take an exam and obtain this level, which is called in French "baccalauréat."
After that, I initially decided to become a petrochemical engineer because I was interested in engineering and science. However, my father encouraged me to pursue medicine, suggesting it could be a good fit for me. So, I thought, "Okay, why not give it a try?"
I decided to take the exams for both the engineering school and the medical school. Fortunately, we started the medicine courses two weeks before the engineering exams, and during those two weeks, I realized my interest in medicine. That's when I made the decision to pursue a career in medicine.
SM: How is it to be a doctor in Togo?
Dr. EA: Being a doctor in Togo is a privilege. People respect you a lot, but the pay for doctors in Togo is not very high. Despite the challenges, it is still one of the best professions here. People admire doctors, and they want their children to become doctors.
SM: And why did you choose to become an eye doctor? What made you choose this specialty?
Dr. EA: I decided to become an eye doctor when I was in my sixth year of medical school. In Togo, you have to study medicine for eight years to become a general practitioner, and then you can choose a specialty for an additional four or five years.
During my sixth year, we were studying ophthalmology, and after just two courses, I knew that it was my future specialty. I approached my professor after the course and told him that I wanted to be one of his fellows in a few years.
After completing my studies, I worked for a year in a rural hospital where I gained experience in various surgical fields. However, I realized that I loved surgery but didn't want to deal with the constant stress of being a gynecologist or a general surgeon. Ophthalmology provided a balance for me. It allowed me to work in a clinic, perform surgeries, and overall, it felt like a soft specialty while still being very impactful.
After a year of working in the surgical field, I made the decision to specialize in ophthalmology. I was fortunate enough to receive an offer from an ophthalmology center in Lomé, the capital city of Togo, where they supported my studies. And that's the story of how I became an eye doctor.
SM: I've always wondered how medical students choose their specialties. It seems like a difficult decision. Can you shed some light on that?
Dr. EA: Choosing a specialty is not always easy. It depends on each individual's experience and inclination. For me, during my general practitioner thesis, I did it in the anatomical-pathology service.
The mentors there were very knowledgeable and helped me work efficiently. They even offered me the opportunity to specialize in anatomical pathology or oncology. However, I realized that those specialties would be more laboratory-oriented, and I wanted to be in direct contact with patients.
So, I considered different specialties, but ophthalmology was the only one that truly resonated with me. It felt like the perfect fit. Sometimes it takes time and exploration to find the right specialty, but when you know, you know.
SM: What are some of the most common eye conditions that you see in your patients?
Dr. EA: In ophthalmology, the most common eye conditions include classic conjunctivitis, but the more serious issues we encounter are glaucoma and cataracts. Glaucoma and cataracts are the two main causes of blindness in Togo. Cataracts can lead to curable blindness, but glaucoma is very damaging to people's vision because once you lose your vision to glaucoma, it's currently not possible to cure it. Therefore, our focus is on prevention and early-stage treatment of glaucoma.
SM: As I was researching before our conversation, I came across a statistic from the World Health Organization stating that there are around 60,000 people living with blindness in West Africa, and a significant number of cases are preventable. I assume you're involved in the efforts to address this issue as well?
Dr. EA: Yes, indeed. The situation is alarming. In Togo alone, we have around 200,000 people waiting for cataract surgeries, and the population is about 8 million. The demand for cataract surgeries is immense, and unfortunately, we don't have enough surgeons to meet the needs. Cataract surgery can cure the condition, unlike glaucoma. Glaucoma causes irreversible vision loss. So, in West Africa, the data mainly refer to non-curable vision problems. Addressing preventable blindness is a significant focus for us.
SM: How do you tackle these challenges, especially in a place where resources are more limited compared to other countries?
Dr. EA: It's a daily challenge. I have to operate four days a week just to meet the demand. When you know the need is enormous, it requires even more commitment. I find great satisfaction in seeing patients the day after their surgery, removing the eye cover, and witnessing their ability to see. Their smiles and the positive impact on their lives motivate me to keep pushing forward. Even when I'm tired, I remind myself that what I'm doing is crucial because each person I operate on will experience a life-changing transformation. I believe that facing challenges head-on is an integral part of building a great project and making a meaningful impact on people's lives.
SM: It's truly admirable how you find inspiration and motivation in the positive outcomes you witness. Speaking of inspiration, earlier, you mentioned the importance of seeing people smile. I recently interviewed a musician who expressed a similar sentiment. He said he plays the violin to make people smile. In your case, as an eye doctor, how does the cultural context in Togo impact people's perception of you and your work?
Dr. EA: People appreciate me because I make myself available to everyone. I'm relatable and accessible to them. They appreciate having someone who can provide solutions to their problems. When I conduct consultations, I interact with people of various age groups. Sometimes, I operate on older individuals, while other times, I see younger patients during clinical activities. People come to me because they know we can have direct conversations without any barriers. I believe that being available and helpful has a positive impact on people, making them more willing to seek assistance. After operating on someone, I often receive blessings from them and their families. Here in Africa, it's common for people to pronounce blessings on those who have helped them. It's a daily occurrence, and even tomorrow, I will have two or three people blessing me for the surgeries I performed today.
SM: Have you ever wished to practice as an eye doctor in a different country?
Dr. EA: There are times when I contemplate practicing in a different country. While the need is immense here in Togo, sometimes I feel that I could do more if I were in another country. I would like to explore advanced procedures like refractive surgery or retina surgery, which are currently challenging to access here. However, my vision is to work towards creating the same level of eye care in Togo that people in developed countries have access to. I believe that in about 10 years, through my projects, we can achieve that goal and provide high-quality eye care to all Togolese citizens.
SM: Your dedication and determination are truly inspiring. Throughout your journey, what have you learned from your patients?
Dr. EA: One of the most valuable lessons I've learned from my patients is resilience. They are resilient individuals who deal with vision impairment and blurry vision, yet they remain positive and confident in life. Their confidence in me and my ability to provide solutions is what brings them to my practice. Witnessing their unwavering confidence in the face of adversity has taught me the importance of having confidence in oneself. They have shown me that in every situation in life, there is a solution waiting to be found.
SM: Dr. Abbey, how do you develop resilience and maintain a positive outlook even during difficult moments?
Dr. EA: Resilience has been a part of my entire life's story. I come from a middle-class family, and my father, despite his modest income as an electrician, managed to provide my brothers and me with a good education. This exemplifies resilience to me. Reflecting on my past experiences and the challenges I've overcome helps me stay positive. I often think about the worst situations I could face and ask myself, "What would you do in that situation?" And the answer is always clear—I would deal with it and find a way to see the positive side. It's about taking responsibility for one's life and accepting situations that cannot be changed. That's how I stay resilient and optimistic.
SM: It's truly admirable how you channel difficult moments into motivation and personal growth. Is there anything specific you do to boost your hope and maintain a positive mindset?
Dr. EA: When I go through difficult moments, I simply look back at my past. I see that I have already overcome more challenging situations than what I'm currently facing. That realization is enough to uplift my spirits. I remind myself that complaining doesn't solve anything; instead, it's about taking responsibility and doing my best. Complaining is not a solution; taking responsibility and accepting situations that cannot be changed is the real path to achieving my goals.
SM: These days, the news is often filled with negativity. Is there anything that worries you?
Dr. EA: No, I am a very optimistic person. Optimism defines me best. I don't pay much attention to negative news. Instead, I focus on the unlimited possibilities and opportunities in the world. It's crucial to believe in what we do and not give up. By working hard and staying positive, we can achieve our dreams. There are good people out there who are willing to help. So, my advice is to maintain optimism and not dwell on negativity.
SM: That's an excellent perspective, Dr. Abbey. Speaking of help, how can people support you in your work?
Dr. EA: The best way people can help me is by sharing this podcast and spreading awareness about my work in Togo. Simply by making my story known to a broader audience, people can contribute to our efforts. I truly appreciate the opportunity you've given me to share my work and beliefs. If someone wants to help directly, they can reach out to me on LinkedIn Elie ABBEY, MD | LinkedIn or visit our website, precyeux.com. We are open to any form of support, whether it's advice, contacts, or financial assistance to help those in need of eye surgeries. One way to contribute is through sponsorship, where someone in a different country can choose to support the surgeries of one or more individuals. So, there are various ways people can help, and we welcome any form of assistance.
SM: Thank you for the kind words, Dr. Abbey. I genuinely admire your dedication and the impact you're making. It's been an honor to have this conversation with you and to share your story. Thank you so much for everything you've shared today. It has been truly inspiring.
Dr. EA: Thank you, Stephen. I'm grateful for the opportunity to share my work and beliefs with you and your audience. Your support means a lot to me. Thank you for making a difference and giving a platform to those who strive to make a positive impact in the world.
In the realm of healing, the tireless efforts of Dr. Elie Abbey transcend the boundaries of medicine, illuminating a path towards accessible eye care for underserved communities. Each smile restored, each vision regained, bears witness to the transformative impact of Dr. Abbey's work. Together, we can amplify his efforts, raise awareness, and take action to combat preventable blindness.
To support Dr. Elie Abbey please visit Précyeux at précyeux.com
Listen to Dr. Elie Abbey on the podcast Pity Party Over to learn how accountability and acceptance pave the way to incredible transformations.
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Thank you for supporting Dr. Abbey's impactful work and learning from his inspiring journey.