Bringing Eye Care Services to the People
Ophthalmologist and glaucoma specialist Dr. Ken Baum vividly remembers his first experience with Seva Mobile Eye Camps. After a grueling trip to Western Tibet with a team of volunteers, the group came to a mountain village where they were greeted by dozens of villagers waiting to see them. They set up a mobile operation room and started performing cataract surgeries.
“There was one older woman who'd been completely blind from cataract for at least eight years," Ken recalls. "We did the surgery, and the next day when she took the patch off, she burst into tears because she could see her grandchildren for the first time. I'll never forget that.”
Why Not a Hospital?
There aren't any eye care facilities for people living in Tibet's remote regions, where the population density is less than one person per square kilometer. "Because people are so spread out, it's not feasible to build hospitals in the rural areas," says Kunga Tashi, the Program Manager at Seva's office in Lhasa, Tibet. "The eye camps are the only way to reach those people who otherwise aren't being served and would remain blind."
An advance team of local health workers gets the word to the people that the camp is coming. Then a team of doctors and aides arrive, bringing all the supplies they'll need. Usually, they'll set up in a community clinic, school building, or some other central place.
For many people, getting to the eye camp is a real challenge: Some walk for several days and some travel on horseback for as long as a week. “It's a challenge for us to get there, too, because we have to bring everything with us, such as surgical tools and supplies, microscopes, and generators because there's no electricity there,” says Kunga.
Seva's Sight Program Director, Dr. Chundak Tenzing, points out that while the surgeries happen in unusual settings, the camps always provides a high level of care. This includes robes, gowns, microscopes, and sterilizing equipment to minimize the risk of infection. “We make sure the quality of care is the same as they would receive in a hospital,” he said.
The Right Camp for the Job
Different kinds of eye camps accommodate different needs. “In Cambodia, it's not so much that people live far from hospitals, it's that there aren't enough surgeons," Chundak said. “So the object of the camps is to boost the volume of surgeries. We bring teams of doctors from our partners in Nepal and India, and they work with the Cambodian doctors. This way, we provide cataract surgery to hundreds of blind patients who otherwise wouldn't be served."
Another type of camp doesn't do any surgery — it's a diagnostic screening camp for eye exams and screening. Some patients can be treated for minor conditions there at the camp, but patients who need more thorough exams or cataract surgery are referred to a hospital for care. This decreases the load at the hospital and helps increase efficiency by avoiding overcrowding.
Building Local Capacity
Ultimately, solutions to diseases caused by poverty can't be dependent on charitable services provided by visiting doctors. The real solution is to support local communities in developing the means to provide care for themselves.
"Our goal is to build a sustainable, affordable eye care infrastructure that's available to everyone," Kunga Tashi explains. “We stay very focused on training and supporting local people so that they're increasingly able to serve their communities on their own. We're very pleased with the progress we're making. Now, 100% of Tibet eye camps are conducted by local teams trained by Seva — and they're doing about 4,500 cataract surgeries each year. We still provide support, but every camp is led by local people.”
Opportunity for Compassion
There's still a long way to go before everyone has access to the eye care services they need. But Ken Baum, who has volunteered for about ten more eye camps since his first trip to Tibet, says it's important to appreciate that each person Seva serves enjoys a life-changing benefit — and that each person's restored vision is a benefit to their family and community as well.
“For me as a surgeon — and as someone who appreciates how fortunate I am in my life — it's really amazing to perform a service that benefits other people in such a powerful way," Ken told us. "Those opportunities seem so rare. Seva donors have this opportunity, too. Maybe they can't go out in the field with us to do surgeries, but their contributions make it all possible.”