How U.S.-based Surgeons are Giving Back and Helping End Blindness Forever

How U.S.-based Surgeons are Giving Back and Helping End Blindness Forever

Sight. We take it for granted. At least, those of us living in the first world do. For anyone living in the developing world, it’s not so simple. There is no quick fix for basic eye problems. Simple issues that take minutes to deal with in the Western world, all too often result in a lifetime of darkness or impaired sight for those in less privileged parts of the world.

The Darkness of Poverty


Of all the things that can go wrong with the eyes, cataracts are the most common. This ailment is the leading cause of blindness in developing countries (in high-income countries, it’s age-related macular degeneration) and it develops when the eye’s natural lens goes cloudy.

The disease, which the World Health Organization estimates causes over half of all blindness on earth, is known as a disease of poverty.

In the developed world, people with cataracts (and good insurance) routinely seek treatment as soon as they have trouble seeing the TV. In low-income countries, people with cataracts routinely go blind.

ophthalmologist volunteering

Despite what you might think, it’s not because removing cataracts requires complicated equipment or expensive technology that is unavailable outside the developed world. Quite the opposite. The operation to remove cataracts is about as simple as they come for an ophthalmologist, and it’s the same procedure in the U.S. or Chad.

It only takes about 15-20 minutes to replace the cloudy natural lens with a clear artificial lens. In the U.S., this quick procedure costs anywhere between $2,500-$5,000 out of pocket, or a 10%-20% copay depending on insurance. That’s in stark contrast to lower-income countries where full sight can be restored for as little as $25.

Given the low cost, why aren’t more people being treated for cataracts in the developing world? The reason is simple. Lack of skill and resources. Bottom line: there is a lack of qualified ophthalmologists in developing countries and not nearly enough equipment available to address this huge problem.

Blindness: A Staggering Statistic

And it is a huge problem. Thirty-nine million people across the planet can’t see. To put it another way — one in every 200 people on earth lives in darkness. And another 246 million have low vision that imposes moderate or severe limits on their lives.

The number is huge but lost in these statistics are the millions more, usually relatives, who have dedicated their lives to helping those who cannot see well enough to function properly.

As gut-wrenching as this situation sounds, it doesn’t have to be this way. A quick, easy, and cheap procedure could restore vision to many people suffering in the shadows; changing their lives and the lives of their dedicated helpers.

Ophthalmologists Giving Back

According to Cure Blindness, an organization trying to solve curable blindness, 18 million people are needlessly blind as they wait for a cataract operation. For some the wait never ends.

For others, that wait is being shortened by generous ophthalmologists who travel to some of the poorest parts of the world to perform these simple procedures. By giving their time and expertise, they restore light — and life — to many who would otherwise spend the rest of their days in darkness.

Flying Eye Hospital

ophthalmologist in a mobile eye care facility plane

One popular volunteer vehicle for U.S. ophthalmologists is Project Orbis. Through this international organization, which has been operating since the late 1960s,  ophthalmologists volunteer and give their time and expertise in one of two ways: They either train doctors in developing countries to carry out procedures or they fly out to these countries to perform a series of much-needed, sight-saving operations.  

The heart of the Project Orbis mission has been the Orbis Flying Eye Hospital — an airplane that doubles as a hospital. It houses a state-of-the-art teaching facility complete with an operating room, classroom, and recovery room. While it might seem like space-age,  the Orib Flying Eye Hospital has actually been flying since 1982.

Making a Difference — One Eye At A Time

Dr. Emerick first heard about these volunteering opportunities from one of his surgeon colleagues, and decided to help out in Guatemala as he had previously lived there to attend a language school, and got acquainted with the beauty of the country and its people.

Emerick has many stories from his travels, but one incident in particular captures the essence of what motivates him to return each year. As he recalls, a man in his early 20s came into the clinic with a severe fungal infection caught from working in the fields.

The situation was so dire the man needed a corneal transplant to prevent him from losing his eye. Unfortunately, the team had just used its last corneal graft for another patient. However, using sclera (the white outer layer of the eyeball) as a temporary replacement for the infected tissue, he requested that the next volunteers bring a corneal graft.

ophthalmologist volunteering and writing with pen and paper

That team carried out the procedure and the man’s vision was restored. This is something that would not have been possible without Dr. Emerick and the volunteer teams.

But it’s more than just these individual cases that motivate Dr. Emerick to volunteer.

“On a mission trip you can only directly help a few patients, but if you are part of a larger program you can help make a huge impact,” he explains. “The clinic we visit is the largest employer in the area and provides primary medical and dental care. Now there is a full-time Guatemalan ophthalmologist who we can help by providing subspecialty care and teaching.”

In The Field — And Back Home

ophthalmologist looking out a plane window

Emerick’s volunteer experience also has a bearing on his practice in the U.S. “Handling challenging conditions overseas makes me a more resourceful clinician and surgeon at home,” he says. “In the OR, if something isn’t working or isn’t available, we fix it or find a replacement and move on, keeping our focus on the patient rather than the technology.”

Ending Curable Blindness for Good

Thanks to generous volunteers, such as Dr. Emerick, giving their time and sharing their skills and experience with a new generation of doctors, there’s every reason to hope curable blindness will become a thing of the past. Their work is bringing light to those who can’t see and changing the lives of millions. Giving them back the sight so many of us take for granted.

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