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Journey to EPOMEC: Tales from Ophthalmology’s First Post-Lockdown Conference

In early March 2020, I was so sick I wondered if I might die.

I was cloistered in an Ethiopian hotel room wracked with a volcanic headache, fever and aching muscles — the combination confining me to a bed that was fast turning into a swimming pool, thanks to my sweat. Endless stomach cramps rolled across my abdomen in waves and forced a heaving dry cough from my ashtmatic lungs.

I did not eat for days, I barely slept, and when I wasn’t stuck to the bed, I was chained to the toilet.

The doctor I managed to visit told me it was nothing to worry about, and that I could not possibly have contracted the novel coronavirus. I was told that even if I was tested, I wouldn’t learn anything, as the antibodies don’t linger forever. I will never know if what I had in that dank Addis Ababa hotel room was COVID-19. But at the time, I was certain that COVID-19 was the only thing it could be.

If it was, I could have been the first recorded case in Ethiopia, possibly even in Africa. So apologies to Ethiopia, if you are reading this … my bad, please let me in again someday as I am rather fond of your food. Also, to Media MICE CEO and Publisher of PIE Matt Young, who I met for the first time after my possible COVID-19 sojourn, apologies: I really do hope it was not me who gave you the virus.

Fortune and Glory, Kid, Fortune and Glory…

Journey to EPOMEC: Tales from Ophthalmology's First Post-Lockdown Conference

So when I had the opportunity to travel to the only major ophthalmology conference proceeding in person this year, I wondered if I was tempting fate. Was I taking an unnecessary risk by traveling from the Czech Republic? My adopted home was one of the worst affected countries in Europe at that point. And alternately, if my Ethiopian illness was something else — was I running a risk of catching COVID-19?

Was this an elaborate prank — revenge for possibly infecting the boss, designed to leave me stranded in the desert with half a liter of whiskey and a compass? Somehow he does not seem like the vengeful type but who knows … it is always the quiet ones you have to watch, after all. Still, I decided to take the risk.

Cue Andyana Jones and the Quest for EPOMEC. And I’m beginning to think that Matt’s idea of revenge was making me wear an Indiana Jones hat across three continents. If that was the case — kudos — I looked ridiculous.

The 7th Evolving Practice of Ophthalmology Middle East Conference (EPOMEC) 2020 was held in Dubai, the largest city in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) from December 10 to 11. Hundreds of ophthalmologists, clinicians, pharmaceutical representatives and more, attended from the Middle East and surrounding regions. The conference contained all the usual trappings with concession stands, in-depth seminars and hobnobbing.

Journey to EPOMEC: Tales from Ophthalmology's First Post-Lockdown Conference

EPOMEC’s defining feature was that it offered a glimpse into the future of ophthalmology, where hybrid conferences will become the norm. Live streams of surgery at the Magrabi Eye Hospital Dubai took place on the first day and interactivity was the watchword, which allowed featured guests to ask the surgeons questions intraoperatively.

Corneal issues were featured prominently at EPOMEC, with some highlights including Cornea: My Best Tips in Managing Corneal Disease in 2020, and Cornea Hot Chair: What Would You Do if You Were Me? So too did retina; one of my favorite sessions was Retina: Oscar Video Competition for Best Surgical Video. Multimedia and multi-focused, EPOMEC’s content did not disappoint.

The conference also held an online event, which we have all become familiar with. These online symposiums and webinars will be the new norm as they allow more people to attend conferences who otherwise would be unwilling or unable due to health concerns, financial constraints, border closures or other difficulties. We should appreciate the opportunity to have our collective cakes and eat them, too.

For all of that, it was good to be back among the people and the ophthalmic community, to meet new contacts — and of course, receive free food. You cannot meet wonderful maverick doctors from Yemen, based in Abu Dhabi, who received their instruction in the Russian language in Moscow, and have a chat in the aforementioned language, when peering through an online portal. Or have an engaging conversation about the future of ophthalmology and Dubai’s role in its progress with a pharmaceutical representative, while standing next to an astronaut … you simply cannot.

But the story was not just the conference, it was getting there too.

The Egyptian Side-Trip

Journey to EPOMEC: Tales from Ophthalmology's First Post-Lockdown Conference

One of the earliest mentions of ophthalmic practice was a reference to the treatment of chronic trachoma in a papyrus, dating back to approximately 1550 BC. It was therefore fitting to visit the Giza Pyramids, though I barely had a moment to film. Such is the paucity of tourists caused by coronavirus that the usual touts and scammers are subsisting on scraps, making them rather forthright in their activities.

“Ah yes my friend, habibi, welcome to Cairo. Please let me give you this gift, it is a traditional headdress, made from traditional polyester … yes, yes, the finest material imported from China, it is absolutely free for you, my friend with nice tattoos. Let me put it on your head, yes, no, no it is a gift, I swear. I know that you do not want it but please, it is Egyptian hospitality, please take it. It’s for free, yes, yes. See, does that not look good on your head? Thank you, thank you for taking my gift. It is free, free, okay, thank you! Give me money, I want 50 Egytpian pounds. Money yes, you took my headdress. I want money, now give it, money, money…”

I was not really ready for this somewhat aggressive sales pitch, and frankly I was a little confused, but the chap did take on a progressively menacing air. Luckily, the driver I had hired and the tour guide (turns out they were in cahoots and scamming me anyway) managed to shake my “friend” off. Better the devil you know I suppose.

Welcome to Cairo, habibi. History does not repeat itself but it does follow a rhythm: Here I am, back in Africa, on a trip associated with COVID-19. At least I could go for a walk this time.

Start the Engine!

At this point, you may be asking yourself what I was doing in Cairo: Was the conference not in Dubai, on the other side of the Middle East? Well, booking flights was a challenge, too. I was already slated to be in Turkey prior to the conference and we were unable to book a direct flight.

That left us with the option of finding a layover, which was no easy task in itself. For various reasons including time, cost, quarantines and bans, Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait and Oman were all out. The only option we had was to go to Dubai from Istanbul via Egypt. 

Istanbul was at the other end of the spectrum to Egypt’s capital. A total curfew was declared a few days before I arrived, meaning Turkish citizens were not allowed out at all, except in limited circumstances, from 9 p.m. Friday until 5 a.m. Monday. This however, did not apply to tourists, meaning I had one of the world’s great metropolises almost to myself.

One of my favorite places in the world, Istanbul (not Constantinople) is a hot mess of a city, usually pulsing with frenetic energy. To see it so subdued, under curfew and without the usual sights and sounds of the largest city in Europe, was surreal. I had plenty of time to take in the sights, hop on one ferry to another between Asia and Europe, and plenty more to dwell on the year that was.

The Adventure Continues…

Journey to EPOMEC: Tales from Ophthalmology's First Post-Lockdown Conference

For many of us, 2020 was a year of superlative horror, whereas for myself, the COVID-19 cloud certainly had silver linings. Joining Media MICE and taking part in this adventure was certainly one of those, which to my family is utterly hilarious. Ever since a childhood eye infection, I have endured a crippling anxiety about eyes — to the extent I could never look at someone taking a contact lens out. Imagine my reaction watching eye surgery for the first time.

I was living in Palestine before COVID-19 hit, indulging an ambition to become a respected war zone correspondent, while somehow skipping the intermediate stages and the experience they would imbibe. As my year began in the Middle East so it ended too, sentimentally at least, in Dubai. My first ever ophthalmology conference and hopefully the first of many (Serena, Media MICE’s absolutely wonderful accountant, please take note).

If You Want to Be a Good Ophthalmologist You Gotta Get out of the Clinic

If anything really sticks out from my adventure, or from the whole of benighted 2020 really, it’s actually something that sticks up. Never before have my nostrils been so assaulted — and for those of us who have taken at least one COVID-19 test — the sensation of a Q-tip launched with the speed of a cruise missile into one’s sinuses is a memorable one. If you are planning on attending any ophthalmology events in 2021, be prepared for it.

For you will be tested, repeatedly and with aplomb. I was only able to enter Egypt with the negative COVID-19 test I took in Istanbul, and that should have been enough for Dubai. However, I had to take another test on arrival in Dubai and remain in quarantine until I received my results, which nearly scuppered everything.

Make sure you plan for every eventuality and leave wiggle room in your schedule. As the emergence of a new, far more contagious form of COVID-19 in England’s Southeast highlights, borders can close and plans change with remarkable speed. At least thanks to the hybrid conference model, you will not miss out on everything if you cannot attend.

Soon enough, conferences will resume with something approaching regularity, and you will be able to gaze in awe at the sight of our own Matt Young cutting about in a new outlandish costume. You might even see me make another appearance in the bloody Indiana Jones hat, who knows. 

The point is that while many things will be different, ophthalmology will persist… And Media MICE will be there to report on it, wearing outlandish costumes.

Editor’s Note: EPOMEC 2020 is the first ophthalmic conference during the pandemic which allowed on-site participation of delegates.

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