Spain and the Philippines – Future Possibilities through Fellowships

The Eye Cancer Foundation has been working to improve eye care in countries lacking eye cancer specialists. KTG interviewed two doctors from the Philippines who are eager to participate in a six-month fellowship program in Barcelona, learning from renowned specialist Dr. Juame Catalá. Their goal is to return to their homeland equipped to provide treatment and educate other vision specialists in their region.

KTG is excited about these programs led by Dr. Finger, President of The Eye Cancer Foundation, as they strive to make a difference in the face of needless deaths among children due to late retinoblastoma diagnosis exacerbated by the pandemic.

During the interview, Dr. Eva Catedral, a partial recipient, and Dr. Majourette Dy Varela, a scheduled recipient, shared their experiences and the challenges faced in their home country. Dr. Catedral explained how unfortunate it was that COVID interrupted her training but expressed her desire to soon complete the program. Even in the brief time she was there, she saw several early stage and some late stage retinoblastoma cases in Barcelona which exponentially increased her understanding of treatment, equipment, and the overall management of retinoblastoma. Upon returning to the Philippines, she was disheartened to have since encountered three cases of late-stage retinoblastoma all requiring exenteration, chemotherapy, and facial reconstruction. Detecting early stage retinoblastoma is so uncommon that she  realizes the urgent need to raise public awareness about detecting the “glow” in a child’s eye.  She is putting up a retinoblastoma awareness program and leading retinoblastoma research in West Visayas State University College of Medicine.  KTG hopes to be additive to those efforts!

Dr. Majourette Dy Varela, based in Manila, also expressed the need for awareness in the Philippines and the unique challenges faced there in spreading the message. She emphasized the importance of efficient referrals and early detection through education, aiming to train various medical healthcare personnel, including ophthalmologists, optometrists, nursing students, and medical students. Unfortunately, COVID forced the discontinuation of some critical team positions, such as the RB Coordinator position, due to funding constraints. Driven by the potential of future eye care in the Philippines, both doctors aspire to involve other healthcare workers and partners in screening and education efforts.  Dr. Varela is particularly driven to put together a team and a referral pathway that will streamline the experience for future families.

As we discussed how general awareness could play a key role in early detection, Dr. Catedral, mother of three and married to a radiologist, shared a personal story about a colleague and her child’s retinoblastoma diagnosis. Her colleague recognized the glow in a photo of her child’s eye and, armed with previous knowledge in medical school about leukocoria, she found her way to timely treatment. The child was diagnosed with bilateral RB and though one eye was lost to enucleation the other was saved and the child’s life safeguarded. Both Dr. Catedral and Dr. Varela lamented that these success stories are far too rare.  

While the problem begins with accurate initial diagnosis, issues with funding and transporting families in need of treatment pose challenges due to financial and geographical constraints, with the loss of available halfway houses making the issue that much more challenging.

Despite the concerning situation in the Philippines, KTG and the doctors remain optimistic about the potential for impact and the future of eye care in the Philippines. They eagerly await the resumption of the fellowship program, where the knowledge gained in Barcelona can be applied to educate, support, and guide families on their retinoblastoma journeys.

We look forward to working alongside these doctors as they build awareness elements into their respective programs and to finding out when next these amazing ophthalmologists will be visiting their mentors in Spain!  We will happily then hope to share about just how transformative the experience will be not only for them, but for their colleagues, their patients, and for the future of vision for all children in their beautiful country.