When customs officers were suspicious of all the medical equipment in his bags, this cataract doctor decided to improvise.

The surgery Dr. Matt Oliva and his colleagues perform takes just four minutes and costs roughly $75 per patient. It also changes lives.

According to the World Health Organization, more than 2 million Africans have lost their sight due to cataracts. A cataract is a clouding over of the eye’s natural lens, leading to blindness.

As would be expected, when a person can’t see, their quality of life dramatically decreases —but even more so in a poverty-stricken country where options are extremely limited. They can’t work, and their family members must not only work to feed them but also keep them out of danger.

Indeed, in Ethiopia, blind people are called “a mouth with no hands” because they have to be fed but can’t contribute to the household income.

Cataract Surgery Changes Lives

man walking down steps with a walking stick and an umbrella

This is where Dr. Oliva and the Himalayan Cataract Project saw an amazing opportunity to do so much good for relatively little investment.

Dr. Oliva has sat on the organization’s board for over a decade. He performs the simple, affordable cataract surgery in countries where residents would never get it otherwise, countries throughout Africa and Asia. On this particular trip, he joined fellow doctors from the United States and Canada at the Bisidimo Hospital in Ethiopia

Word had spread and the line at the hospital, a former leper colony, was long. Even though the procedure takes only minutes, some of the prospective patients would have to wait a day or two for surgery. They knew it. They had brought tents.

A Doctor Without His Tools

Dr. Oliva, on the other hand, arrived at the hospital without his bags. They had been seized by authorities at Ethiopian customs. The large amount of medical equipment he had brought with him from Oregon raised a red flag.

But the doctor was undeterred. He would just have to improvise. Dr. Oliva donned a pair of flip flops, courtesy of the hotel he was staying at, and green scrubs from the hospital and got to work.

In just six days, the team of doctors performed 1600 cataract surgeries. Many patients had just one cloudy eye, but others had two. The most complicated procedures — patients with deeply sunken eyes, for example — might take up to 20 minutes.

A New Outlook on Life for Amina Ahmed

60-year-old Amina Ahmed was the lucky recipient of one of those surgeries. She had heard about the campaign on the radio. Her extended family was struggling, her children working to feed and care for their mother and their own children at the same time.

They worried about Ahmed when they couldn’t be around to watch her. Driven to exhaustion over the last four years of Ahmed’s worsening blindness, they hoped that the surgery be the miracle they had been praying for.

And to their delight — especially Ahmed’s — it was. 

Cataracts develop for a variety of reasons, often with age, from injury or overexposure to sun or even vitamin deficiency. The lens of the eye becomes cloudy, causing the person to lose their vision. But the solution is shockingly simple. Doctors can remove the patient’s natural lens and replace it with a plastic one — a lens that will never become cloudy. And that lens only costs $4.

That was exactly what Dr. Oliva’s team did for Amina Ahmed. And in the space of a few minutes, her world changed.

“When I went to the hospital,” she said excitedly after the bandages were removed, “I couldn’t see and now I can see everything…I’m very happy. I can see the faces of everybody.” 

For Ahmed, “everybody” includes her children and extended family — but especially her two-year-old grandson. Before the surgery, she knew her grandson only by voice. “Now I can see his face,” she rejoiced.

The Problem of Accessibility

In Ethiopia, there are only 100 eye doctors. That’s about one eye doctor for every one million people.

Dr. Mulu Lisanekwork, an ophthalmologist from Addis Ababa, says that all this untreated blindness contributes to poverty in Ethiopia. “People stop being productive when they get cataracts. And productive people are less productive because they have to take care of their blind family members.”

Dr. Oliva knows firsthand the joy the simple surgery brings to his patients and how much it changes their lives. Eventually, the Ethiopian customs office did give the doctor his luggage back. But the minor setback hadn’t slowed him down. On a good day, Dr. Oliva and his team treated 400 cataracts.

“It doesn’t really cost very much money,” said Dr. Oliva. The plastic lens itself costs $4, and even with overhead and personnel costs, a patient can have his or her sight restored for a mere $75. It truly is nothing short of a miracle.

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