I spent the first week of 2014 in San Lorenzo, Honduras on a cataract eye surgical brigade, sponsored by SEE (Surgical Eye Expeditions) and KHISH (Kurtz Humanitarian Initiative for Southwest Honduras). My oldest daughter, a sophomore at Virginia Tech, joined me for the journey and was a great help in the clinic. I chose Honduras for three reasons:
1. There is an extreme shortage of eye surgeons in this region. There are no Ophthalmologists in Southwest Honduras and only 25 are active in the entire country (which is the same size and population as Virginia). It is estimated that 45,000 Honduran people need cataract surgery every year and the local Ophthalmologists can only take care of a fraction of the need.
2. Patients get cataracts much earlier in Honduras because of the proximity to the equator and significant exposure to UV light. Many of the patients we saw were legally blind from cataracts and in their 30’s and 40’s. 70% of Hondurans over 50 years of age have cataracts. Most don’t have access to cataract surgery and thus go blind. It is estimated that, for every blind patient, it takes two family members to care for them, thus taking more people out of the work force.
3. Honduras is the third poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and the poorest of the poor are located in Southwest Honduras where we performed cataract and pterygium surgeries for free. In the US, the average cost for cataract surgery is $2038.
Dr. Keith Kellam from Louisiana, Dr. Jim Wheatley from North Carolina and myself were able to complete 160 sight restoring surgeries over the week, the most in 10 year history of the brigade. We were assisted by dozens of volunteers both from Honduras and the US. Hundreds of patients were screened daily and those that were not surgical candidates were measured for refractive error and given glasses donated by the Lions Eye Centers. Patients received blood pressure checks and medical evaluations and those that had dental problems were treated by our three dentists.
All in all, it was a very rewarding week. The Honduran people were very appreciative and it was a thrill to see their joy when we removed their eye patches the day after surgery. Many were able to see their children and grandchildren for the first time. One tiny little lady began to hug me after removing her patch. She began to speak very rapidly and loudly in Spanish. I asked the interpreter to tell me what she was saying. He said “she is very, very happy and is blessing you”. Truly, we all felt blessed. Unfortunately, we had to turn down a few patients on the last day because we ran out of time. It’s heartbreaking to know they will have to wait another year until the group returns to have their sight restored.