Last Saturday, September 3, following a day of training for its newest volunteer surgeons, SEE International hosted a delightful celebratory dinner at the lovely Santa Barbara home of its founder, Dr. Harry Brown.
Founded in 1974, Goleta-based SEE International sends small, volunteer surgical teams to restore sight, typically through cataract removal, to underserved populations worldwide. There are an estimated 39 million blind people in the world, 48% of whom are blind because of cataracts.
SEE’s volunteer eye surgeons pay their own travel expenses, most supplies are donated, and SEE keeps a lean staff. As a result, for every $100 SEE receives in donations, it can perform a sight-restoring surgery.
After their full-day of training, the 11 surgeons and one nurse and the four volunteer instructors joined a group of SEE board members, staff, and donors for cocktails and dinner on Dr. Brown’s sprawling patio. Two of the instructors, Dr. Janak Shah and his wife, Dr. Preeti Shah, traveled 30 hours from their native India to teach the course.
Dr. Janak Shah has gone on 144 SEE Expeditions and performed close to 20,000 sight-restoring surgeries in 14 countries over 20 years. In addition to his work for SEE, Dr. Shah somehow manages to maintain a private practice in Mumbai focused on pediatric ophthalmology and run a pharmaceutical company he owns. He related that when the bandages are removed after the surgery and the patient can see, “the blessings they give you no money in the world can buy, it is bliss.”
He explained that a turning point for him came during an expedition back in 2001 to eastern India. When three women in the same household came to visit him on separate days, he suggested scheduling their cataract surgeries on the same day. He later learned that this was not possible because the family was so poor, they could afford only one sari, so the women could leave the house only one at a time. Ever since seeing firsthand this degree of poverty, Dr. Shah has been deeply committed to using his skills to restore sight. Now, nearly 20,000 people are able to see because of his skills and generosity.
Another instructor, Dr. Jeff Rutgard of San Diego, began 18 years ago doing SEE expeditions full-time. While it has involved financial sacrifice for he and his family to live on his wife’s income alone, he related how he feels honored and privileged to volunteer with SEE full-time and that this has enabled him to do more than 14,000 sight-restoring surgeries. He shared how whenever he leaves a clinic, the hosts always want to know when he can come back because the need never goes away, and his generous spirit compels him to always return.
Of the 14,000 stories Rutgard could have shared was one of an 18 year-old girl in the Dominican Republic who thanked him for restoring the sight of her father. She explained that she had never been to school because she had to care for her blind father so did not know how to read or write. Now, thanks to her father’s surgery, she could attend school. During casual conversation that evening, guests were treated to many heartwarming stories from the field.
The all-day training held at UC Santa Barbara taught manual small incision cataract surgery, a quick, safe, highly-regarded method. It is the most well-suited for use in developing countries because it does not require machinery or electricity. It is also the most appropriate method because the cataracts seen in patients in developing countries often have progressed so far that traditional machine-assisted methods are not effective.The procedure uses a local anesthetic and takes about 30 minutes. This method is not taught in medical schools, making SEE’s training program crucial. SEE currently holds 14 training sessions per year, five in the U.S.
Last year, SEE conducted 182 clinics in 50 countries, drawing on its roster of 600 volunteer medical professionals. It performed 15,057 sight-restoring surgeries and conducting 36,544 vision screenings. In addition, SEE surgeons often provide lectures and exchange valuable skills during their visits. SEE is on a growth trajectory, increasing the number of expeditions and surgeries by 15-20% per year for the past three years.
SEE also operates here in Santa Barbara, providing free eye exams, medicine, and surgeries to the uninsured. Free eyeglasses are supplied by the Santa Barbara Eyeglass Factory. Last year, this program served more than 1,600 patients. For more information on SEE International or to make a donation, go to seeintl.org.
By Gail Arnold