Editor’s note: Two ophthalmologists with the UC Irvine Health Gavin Herbert Eye Institute recently traveled to Pisco, a remote city in Peru, on a medical mission to perform cataract surgery and one bilateral glaucoma surgery on patients who were all but blinded by a condition that is quickly corrected here in the United States. Dr. Sameh Mosaed, professor of ophthalmology, performed most of the surgeries; a day after, the eye patches were removed and the patients received postoperative care from Dr. Mitul C. Mehta, assistant clinical professor.
It was an extraordinary experience for the 30-plus patients, whose vision was restored in a mere 24 hours, and for the two doctors and their staff, who quickly came to admire their patients and share in their joy.
Dr. Sameh Mosaed: I had never done a mission before. I was approached by a nurse affiliated with Women for World Health. They do medical missions throughout the world but they’d never done an eye mission.
I invited Dr. Mehta, but there also were several support personnel including two operating room nurses from Canada who do frequent medical missions. Two companies, Eagle Labs and Alcon, donated several thousand dollars’ worth of supplies.
Dr. Mitul C. Mehta: I’ve been on nonsurgical missions before and my family does a lot of charity work. My uncle has been running an eye clinic in my family’s ancestral village in India.
Dr. Mosaed sets up her microscope.
Mosaed: Pisco has a clinic that is a kind of high-volume labor and delivery center and urgent care. They have an on-site ophthalmologist, but no surgery. They had an operating room but we brought everything that was required for surgery, including an operating microscope and an ultrasound-based cataract surgery machine – the latest technology.
Mehta: The town was completely leveled in 2008 by a big earthquake. If you look around, you just see rubble everywhere. This hospital had to be built from scratch.
The operating room staff was so amazing to us. They gave us their break room, they let us take over their hospital. They didn’t complain once.
Dr. Mosaed applies numbing drops to a patient before surgery.
Mosaed: I would hold fingers up in front of the patients and they couldn’t see how many. I was doing an average of 10 to 12 surgeries a day. There were cases of remarkably dense cataracts, very severe. In a year, you would maybe see one case like these in the U.S. In a couple of the cases , I could not remove them with the ultrasound; I had to take them out whole.
Mehta: Dr. Mosaed was in the operating room doing the heavy lifting because she’s an amazing cataract surgeon. She did surgeries with ultrasound that most people would think impossible. I think she’s a magician and that’s how this was able to work. In some of these cases, the ultrasound machine was almost at full capacity, which is more or less unheard of in the United States. Just to cut the lens, it was like doing surgery on a marble.
A husband and wife who have been married for 54 years wait for their cataract surgery.
Mosaed: Every case was touching, every case was memorable. But there’s one particular story in my memory, a husband and wife who had been married for 54 years and they both had cataracts. I operated on them on the same day. They were sitting side by side in the waiting area, holding hands.
Mehta: These are two people who really have no one else. Talk about the blind leading the blind, quite literally. It was the husband who took the patch off first. It was a dramatic improvement in his vision. He was trying to be so stoic but the grin on his face was amazing. He wanted to be the one to see his wife get her eye patch off. She did, and she could see, and she started crying. Then I started crying.
Mosaed: I’m already kind of planning our next mission, probably next year. I’m not sure where yet. Next time, I’ll bring bug spray.
Mehta: I’m trying to set up a mission now to do retina surgery, because I’m a retina surgeon by training.
Drs. Mosaed (left) and Mehta leave clinic after a long day of procedures.
Mosaed: People in Peru have a very stoic approach to pain and procedures. They were not very anxious. They had faith that God would take care of them. They didn’t flinch, they didn’t complain, they didn’t receive any sedation. It was really remarkable.
The mission was a reminder of how lucky we are here and how we take a lot of things for granted and how people make do with very little in the rest of the world. And yet they are happy, just as happy as we are. Maybe happier.
Mehta: Happier, I think. They don’t see themselves as victims. This is just life for them. And suddenly life got better.