The joy radiating from the face of a patient who can see again after years of blindness motivates Madhavi Reddy, MD to take time out of her Brownsville, Texas, ophthalmology practice every year, pack her bags and travel thousands of miles to deliver free eye care to people in need.
In the 14 years she has volunteered with SEE International – a non-profit humanitarian organization whose 650 volunteer ophthalmologists restore sight to people blinded by cataracts in more than 50 countries – she’s performed hundreds of cataract surgeries in countries in Central and South America, Africa and Asia.
As she reels off a list of countries that includes Mexico, Ecuador, Honduras, El Salvador, Peru, Ethiopia, Cambodia, Myanmar and her native India, Madhavi’s passion for medical missions is unmistakable. Since 2017, she also travels at her own expense to Fort Worth, where she volunteers at Cornerstone Cataract Clinic. And she frequently solicits contributions from friends to pay for mission supplies, including the reading glasses that make it possible for older people experiencing a decline in near vision to continue to work and support their families.1
Individuals treated by SEE doctors like Madhavi in these countries lack access to eye care and the means to pay for it. So when eye care comes to them via a medical mission, these patients go to extraordinary lengths to receive treatment.
“People walk for miles, they walk for days, and it’s not uncommon to have 200 people lined up because they have an opportunity to get eye care and they’re going to take advantage of it for themselves, for their children or for their parents,” she said.
Having been blinded by cataracts, many patients are brought to clinics by sighted family members. Cataracts are the leading cause of blindness in the world and the most common cause of vision loss in people over age 40.2
Madhavi is one of hundreds of eye doctors who volunteer each year for medical missions supported by Alcon Cares through product donations that will exceed $50 million in 2018. Alcon Cares works to advance and improve the quality of eye health, education and access to care in underserved areas.
“Alcon supports medical missions because we believe it’s our responsibility to give back and there are many people around the world who are less fortunate, who cannot afford proper eye care or the products used in proper eye care,” said Rick Weisbarth, OD, FAAO, a member of the Alcon Foundation board and Alcon’s Vice President and Head of Professional Affairs for U.S. Vision Care. “Supporting missions is one way we pay it forward and help people in need today, as well as generations to come.”
In October alone, Alcon donated – through Alcon Cares – more than $5 million in products for use in performing more than 4,000 sight-restoring cataract surgeries during 48 medical missions.
October is significant because the 11th of the month is World Sight Day, an annual day of awareness about avoidable blindness and visual impairment.3 About 80 percent – four out of five cases – of visual impairment and blindness is avoidable if identified and treated early.4
Each year, Alcon supports about 600 medical missions conducted by volunteer organizations through Alcon Cares. In addition to SEE’s medical missions, Alcon supports Mercy Ships, which deploys hospital ships that provide free lifesaving surgeries for people in places where medical care is virtually non-existent.
To increase Mercy Ships’ capacity, Alcon donated cash and products valued at $10 million for a new hospital ship that will go into service in late 2019 to treat patients and conduct medical training in West Africa.
Closer to home, Alcon supports Cornerstone Cataract Clinic and Community Eye Clinic in Fort Worth through the Alcon Foundation and Alcon Cares. The sister clinics serve the eye care needs of indigent patients and those with no or inadequate health insurance, like the 57-year-old Texas man who lost his job when his cataracts made it impossible for him to operate machinery at work.
Having lost his job and then his apartment, and unable to see well enough to drive, he had to move in with his daughter, according to Jennifer Deakins, OD, FAAO, Director of Community Eye Clinic. Now, after evaluation at Community Eye Clinic, he is awaiting free cataract surgery at Cornerstone Cataract Clinic.
For the first time this year, the clinics partnered with the Alcon Foundation to conduct free eye health and vision screenings for 300 adults at the State Fair of Texas on World Sight Day. Several of those screened told staffers that they hadn’t seen an eye doctor in years.
“We see ourselves as local missions,” Jenn said.
Cataracts: Top Cause of Blindness
The Texas man awaiting cataract surgery is an example of how cataracts can steal vision and livelihoods. Cataracts are responsible for more than half of world blindness, about 20 million people. As lifespans increase and the global population ages, the number of people who will develop cataracts is projected to grow.5
A cataract is a clouding of the lens in the eye that impairs vision. Most cataracts form naturally with age.4 If left untreated, cataracts cause continual loss of vision and can eventually lead to total blindness.
Surgery is the only way to remove cataracts and restore vision. The 20-minute outpatient procedure involves removing the cloudy natural lens of the eye and replacing it with an artificial lens implant known as an intraocular lens.2, 5
Cataract surgery is one of the most commonly performed and cost-effective surgical procedures, as well as among the most successful. More than 95 percent of cataract surgeries result in improved vision.2, 5, 6
That’s obvious in photos of a smiling Madhavi flanked by her surgical patients in Peru, her most recent mission. Though the patients are still sporting bandages over one eye, their faces are beaming with the happiness of seeing again.
Training Eye Care Providers
It is faces like those that Danny Haddad, MD remembers as he travels the world in his role as Chief of Programs at Orbis International, an international non-governmental organization dedicated to saving sight worldwide by training eye care professionals in underserved communities. One such face is that of a Ghanaian man blind for seven years before he underwent cataract surgery and saw his grandson for the first time.
“It’s so amazing to see somebody who’s been blind for years, to see the sadness and depression in their face, and then two days later see that same person when the bandages come off and they see for the first time in several years,” Danny related. “You see that change in expression in their face that’s amazing.”
Orbis has a mission that sets it apart from other organizations supported by Alcon, that of building sustainable eye care in countries where none exists. This involves training eye care teams in partner hospitals, including ophthalmologists, anesthesiologists, nurses, technicians and auxiliary personnel such as biomedical engineers, responsible for maintaining surgical and other equipment. Orbis’s approach brings to mind an old parable: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.
“We're not the organization that goes out to do a thousand cataract surgeries,” Danny explained. “We're there to train the local teams to go out and do the thousand cataract surgeries and we have a lot of different tools to be able to do that training.”
Two of the best known tools Orbis wields are the Flying Eye Hospital and Cybersight. The Flying Eye Hospital is a cargo plane that’s been transformed into a state-of-the-art training facility, complete with operating and recovery rooms and a classroom. The volunteer faculty train local doctors on board the aircraft and at local hospitals, providing practical education that local eye care teams can use after the Flying Eye Hospital has departed for its next destination.
Cybersight is a telemedicine platform that permits Orbis’s expert volunteers to teach and support eye care teams using internet and mobile technologies. Through Cybersight, Orbis provides online training and mentorship for eye health professionals in developing countries through lectures, live webinars, case discussions and consultations. Cybersight is particularly valuable in locations where a physical presence isn’t possible due to cost, logistics or security concerns.
Orbis is working in 18 countries today and reaching 110 countries via Cybersight, according to Danny. Alcon donates ophthalmic equipment, pharmaceuticals and supplies for the Flying Eye Hospital and its partner hospitals around the world. In addition, Alcon biomedical engineers volunteer on planes and assist in maintaining equipment in eye centers.
“Without the support of Alcon, we couldn't do what we do and we couldn't have the impact that we’re having,” Danny acknowledged.
He related a story about visiting a Rohingya camp in Bangladesh this year, where he met a woman who underwent cataract surgery performed by Orbis partners. “The next day, the bandage came off and for the first time in years she could see again,” he related.
Just as the images of her no-longer-blind surgical patients motivate Madhavi to plan more medical missions, memories of the Ghanaian grandfather and the Rohingya woman drive Danny.
“When we’re having a bad day in the office, it’s important to remember that that’s really what our impact is,” Danny said. “A lot of times we’re much removed from these realities, but the intraocular lens implanted in this Rohingya lady” – developed and donated by Alcon – “enabled her to see again. That’s amazing and that’s why we do this.”
Reddy, Priya Adhisesha; Congdon, Nathan; MacKensie, Graeme; Gogate, Parikshit; Wen, Qing; Jan, Catherine; Clarke, Mike; Kassalow, Jordan; Gudwin, Ela; O’Neill, Ciaran; Jin, Ling; Tang, Jianjun; Bassett, Ken; Cherwek, David H.; Ali, Rahul. “Effect of providing near glasses on productivity among rural Indian tea workers with presbyopia (PROSPER): a randomized trial.” The Lancet. Volume 6, Issue 9 (2018): 1019-1027. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/langlo/article/PIIS2214-109X(18)30329-2/fulltext
Baltussen, Rob; Sylla, Mariame; Mariotti, Silvio P. “Cost-effectiveness analysis of cataract surgery: a global and regional analysis.” Bulletin of the World Health Organization. 82 (2004): 338-345. http://www.who.int/blindness/cost_cataract.pdf