For more than a decade, Bakri Hamza has been coming to the UK to see the surgeon he trusts with saving his eyesight.
Mr Hamza, 75, had acid sprayed on his face in an attack by robbers in his native Syria, badly damaging his left eye.
But thanks to Prof Harminder Singh Dua, at least 70 per cent of his vision has been saved, he said.
Mr Hamza, who now lives in Turkey, first sought out Prof Dua at The Park Hospital – a private hospital in Nottingham, central England – back in 2012, soon after he was attacked.
As part of our series on Global Health, The National spoke to Mr Hamza, who owns a bakery in the south-central Turkish city of Gaziantep, about his experience of travelling to the UK for medical care.
Prof Dua is one of small number of surgeons in the UK able to carry out the treatment required, and initially performed a cornea transplant on Mr Hamza.
He has more than 40 years’ experience in the treatment in eye diseases and trained in India, England, Scotland and the USA, where he undertook advanced training at the Wills Eye Hospital, Philadelphia.
Since 1994, he has served as a consultant ophthalmologist and professor of ophthalmology at the University of Nottingham. He was also president of the Royal College of Ophthalmologists.
Outside of his work, Prof Dua once served as high sheriff of Nottingham – a ceremonial role that involves being the British monarch’s judicial representative for the county.
“A friend of mine in Syria told me about Prof Dua in the UK. So, I came to the UK to be treated by him specifically,” Mr Hamza told The National.
At the time he was living in Jordan, after leaving the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, where he owned a factory. Mr Hamza later moved to Turkey.
Since his first operation, he has regularly been returning for treatment and check-ups with Prof Dua.
“I had regular follow-up every two to three months in the first two years after the operation. Then it was once a year,” said Mr Hamza.
Prof Dua said he believes Mr Hamza may have been referred to him because he has visited Syria several times and worked with a number of PhD students from the country.
Last year, Mr Hamza began experiencing new difficulties when a stitch on his transplanted cornea came loose and his eye became infected.
He sought help from doctors in Turkey, who said he needed to have the infected eye removed.
Mr Hamza said that while the Turkish hospitals were “excellent”, he was determined to save his eye, so once again arranged to come to the UK.
In addition to the infection, Mr Hamza has had to contend with the consequences of his earlier injury.
The acid attack destroyed the surface of the eye and also stem cells, meaning there is no source for the new cells to grow.
These replenish cells on the surface of the cornea and without them vision is impaired and the eye becomes irritated.
In December, Mr Hamza had successful surgery to repeat the cornea transplant and also have a stem cell transplant.
Mr Hamza is currently on medication to prevent his body rejecting the transplanted cornea and this is monitored with blood tests, which need to be done in Nottingham.
He will return to the English city in September, but after then hopes visits will become twice yearly.
Mr Hamza is pleased with the results of his treatment.
“I’ve regained 60 to 70 per cent of my eyesight since the latest operation. Prof Dua said it could still improve”.
With a new pair of glasses, 85 to 90 per cent of his eyesight can ultimately be restored, he said.
But the cost of this treatment adds up. Mr Hamza said the operation was £6,000 ($7,640), with additional costs for regular follow ups, medication, flights and hotels.
The Park Hospital says an initial consultation costs £250, with follow-ups priced at £100.
Mr Hamza still needs to take three different kinds of eye drops, at intervals ranging from four to eight hours.
The restoration of his eyesight is all the more remarkable when he describes what happened to him back in Syria.
“I was waiting for the lift at the entrance of my building, when burglars attacked me. They sprayed my face with acid. I felt like my face was on fire.”
Despite regular trips to the UK for treatment, Mr Hamza must still go through the same bureaucratic procedure every six months to get a visa, at a cost of £95.
“It’s a lot of work. If only they gave us visas for two years,” he said.
“The main issue I struggle with is getting a visa. When I came to the UK from Jordan for treatment, it took a long time to get the visa.
“I would like to bring a member of my family with me when I come to the UK for treatment. They could not get visas to join me.
“They speak really good English, they can help me get around. I am old and need their help when I’m here.”
But ultimately, Mr Hamza said the skill and experience of Prof Dua is something that makes the long journey and the visa hassles worth it and is effusive in his praise of the surgeon.
“No doctor has treated me like he did. He is very well informed and excellent. I thank God that I was introduced to him,” said Mr Hamza.
For his part, Prof Dua said Mr Hamza has his personal phone number and never makes a decision on his eye without consulting him first.
The Park Hospital has doctors from all over the world and wide range of languages are spoken, including Arabic, so Mr Hamza feels at home, he added.
Prof Dua said he was pleased that he has been able to help Mr Hamza and says the care in Nottingham is as good as anywhere in the world.
Updated: June 20, 2023, 2:24 PM