Prof Linda Visser takes the lead at Division of Ophthalmology

Prof Linda Visser.

That warm feeling never goes away when you see the joy on a patient’s face the moment it sinks in that he can see again after cataract or retinal detachment surgery.

“And is it not remarkable that two people can become economically active again after a small procedure such as a twenty-minute cataract operation? Both the person with the cataract and the person who had to take care of him because he was blind, can often go back to work,” says Prof Linda Visser (57), who was recently appointed head of the Division of Ophthalmology at Stellenbosch University’s (SU) Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (FMHS).

This is her first appointment in the Cape.

Visser, the middle child of a civil engineer father and pianist mother, spent most of her years growing up in Pretoria. She completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Pretoria, followed by her postgraduate specialisation at the Department of Ophthalmology of the University of KwaZulu-Natal. She remained there for thirty years – the last fifteen as head of the department.

She laughs while recalling how her orthopaedic surgeon uncle in her fourth year at medical school chauvinistically remarked that women cannot be orthopaedic surgeons and should rather do something like ophthalmology because it is easier. “I decided I was going to prove him wrong.”

However, after working in an orthopaedic surgery department for six months, she realised that she prefers finer surgery over “working with hammers and chisels”.

She has never regretted this, even though there are quite a few challenges.

“Ophthalmology is considered a small section of medicine because the eye is small,” says Visser. “This leads to this specialist area being regularly neglected, underestimated and underfunded, and also to theatre lists being restricted more than other specialist areas in times of crises such as Covid-19. Few people realise that cataract surgery worldwide is done more than any other surgery and is also the most cost effective.”

Another challenge is the exponential increase in diabetes. “The biggest complication of the undertreatment of diabetes is diabetic retinopathy, which leads to blindness in young people. And then, of course, there are two further major problems – trauma and HIV – that can both lead to blindness. The eye is seen as a soft target in interpersonal violence and especially gender-based violence,” she explains.

It was for this reason that Visser and former colleagues highlighted gender-based violence in their dance routine which won the KwaZulu-Natal Health Department’s Jerusalema challenge. “In order to stand out, I suggested that we incorporate other cultures’ style of dancing – hence also ballet and Indian dances,” says Visser, a keen ballet dancer who also plays the piano and saxophone. Apart from gender-based violence, the backlog in cataract surgery in the state sector was also highlighted and the McCord Provincial Eye Hospital showcased by dancing in various parts of this hospital – including the theatre – for the video-recording.

Visser mainly performs vitreoretinal surgery and has long been interested in retinal complications of HIV, especially CMV retinitis, as well as progressive outer retinal necrosis (PORN), toxoplasmosis and TB.

Around 2008 South Africa became part of the third wave of retinopathy of prematurity (ROP) and she was forced to start researching it. “More recently diabetic retinopathy has increased to such an extent that I have also started doing research on this.”

Visser is a board member of the World Sight Foundation. She is involved in the international organisation ICROP-3, which recently published the new ROP classification, as well as SIBA (Stop Infant Blindness in Africa), which tackles ROP in sub-Saharan Africa. In addition, she is a member of the Vision Academy, a group of international vitreoretinal specialists who research six or seven topics in the retinal environment each year and jointly publish an article on each.

“I have always been interested in languages,” she says about the fact that in addition to Afrikaans and English she can also get by in Italian and Spanish and a little Zulu.

Her older sister is a psychologist in the Cape, where her mother also moved when her father died two years ago. Their brother, an anaesthetist, lives in England.

Visser does not plan any major changes in her new work environment.

“Clinical teaching could improve slightly, and I would also like to encourage collaboration with other departments, such as the University of Cape Town. Furthermore, I just want to build on the good foundation that already exists with regard to undergraduate learning and teaching as well as research at SU.”

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