Sondheimer On Sight: Our cataract surgery mission trip

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Cataracts are a reduction in vision due to cloudiness of the lens of the eyes. Severe cataracts make it impossible to see anything but light or darkness.

People who are blind from cataracts can’t see to walk, work, take care of others, take care of themselves and enjoy the simple things in life.

For most people, losing our sight from cataracts and lacking the financial means and access to medical care to again see clearly is hard to imagine. The World Health Organization estimates that more than 45 million people, suffering with cataracts, could have their vision restored if they had access to an eye surgeon. Cataract surgery is one of the most successful surgeries available today, quickly restoring excellent sight for most patients. In the United States, about 6,000 people per million have their sight restored with cataract surgery. In the poorest countries, approximately 600 people per million are able to have their cataracts treated. Insufficient access to quality care, high costs, fear, resignation, superstition and people thinking that they are not worthy of the effort keep people blind from cataracts in the poorest countries.

I have had the privilege to help these folks. I have traveled to Vietnam and Honduras and performed cataract surgery for people who would otherwise be unable to see.

Many good people and organizations have contributed to make these volunteer missions possible. Host doctors in San Pedro Sula, Honduras and Hue, Vietnam screened the patients before surgery, provided the operating rooms and staff, and cared for the patients post-operatively. Visiting physicians pay their own travel expenses, bring surgical supplies and perform the cataract surgeries without charge. Local health and civic authorities approved our activities and welcomed us. Two International Humanitarian Organizations have sponsored the trips: Surgical Eye Expeditions of Santa Barbara, CA and Vision Outreach International of St. Joseph, MI. Volunteer physicians with See International have examined over 3 million patients and performed over 400,000 surgeries since 1974. Corporations, including Alcon, Dutch Ophthalmic and Microsurgical Technologies donated thousands of dollars of surgical supplies for our missions. Patients that can afford it pay a nominal fee for the surgery. Donors in the United States support the International Aid organizations.

Before going on my first mission trip, I trained myself to perform small incision cataract surgery without the expensive high technology ultrasound systems and supplies used with modern cataract surgery in the United States. Mission cataract surgery is usually performed at a low cost with donated lower technology equipment and supplies.

Cataract surgery is the beginning of a life-changing event. Patients regain their independence and dignity. Many return to work or school. Family members may no longer be required to take care of them, as they are now self-sufficient.

We have also raised money to purchase new equipment for our host surgeons and taught them about our advanced techniques. The result of these volunteer efforts, especially at this time of year when we celebrate the holidays, fills our hearts and souls with happiness and gratitude.

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Dr. Stuart Sondheimer, MD is an ophthalmologist and eye surgeon with offices located in Park Ridge, Deerfield and Skokie. The advice contained in this column is for informational purposes only. Readers should consult with a physician to evaluate any illness or medical condition. Dr. Sondheimer accepts new patients. Call (847) 677-2794 or visit www.drsondheimer.com.