Nine Doctors Discuss Challenges and Rewards of Fighting Blindness Internationally
Approximately 32 million people worldwide are blind, and 191 million have vision that is moderately or severely impaired, according to a study published in the journal Ophthalmology. While 80 percent of these cases are preventable or treatable, gaining access to the necessary medical intervention or treatment can be extremely challenging for those living in isolated or low-resource communities. Throughout the world, thousands of ophthalmologists – medical doctors specializing in the diagnosis, medical and surgical treatment of eye diseases and conditions – are working tirelessly to overcome barriers and eradicate preventable blindness.
Below, some of these courageous doctors reflect on their work and share their perspectives on the challenges and rewards of providing eye care internationally. The Academy shares their stories and comments in the hopes that others will be inspired to join the fight against blindness.
If you are an ophthalmologist interested in volunteering to bring eye care to communities who need them most, the American Academy of Ophthalmology can help match you with a an organization through the EyeCare Volunteer Registry.
Horn of Africa – Mario Angi, MD
"I feel very fortunate to watch eye clinics that I founded years ago during my voluntary service with Christian Blind Mission flourish and work with local personnel to expand the number of patients seen and major surgeries performed each year," said Dr. Angi, president of the Christian Blind Mission Italy. "However, eye care in the Horn of Africa continues to be challenged by the lack of trained ophthalmic professionals."
Brazil – Rubens Belfort Jr., MD, PhD, MBA
"The lack of access, inadequate human resources and old technology are the biggest challenges to eye health in the parts of Brazil where I work," said Dr. Belfort, head of ophthalmology at the Escola Paulista de Medicina, (São Paulo Hospital/Federal University of São Paulo, Brazil). "We must innovate and build eye health care teams to work together efficiently and effectively. It has been incredibly rewarding to work in the eye care field, to witness the advance of science and technology not only in medical sciences and biology, but also their convergence with other fields like sociology, communications and information technology."
Ghana – Donald L. Budenz, MD, MPH
"The privilege of caring for patients, doing research and educating health care workers in Ghana has been most rewarding," said Dr. Budenz, volunteer ophthalmologist in Ghana and chair of ophthalmology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "However, there are still many obstacles to providing eye care in Ghana. Most notably, there is a lack of subspecialty care and very limited support from the government as this is still a country where malaria and other tropical diseases consume the majority of governmental health resources."
Sub-Saharan Africa – Alan S. Crandall, MD
"When working with doctors and staff at partner clinics throughout the world, it is so rewarding to watch these talented people grow into the teachers of the next generation of high- quality eye care providers all across the globe," said Dr. Crandall, volunteer ophthalmologist in Ghana and Ethiopia, and director of glaucoma and cataract at the University of Utah, School of Medicine Moran Eye Center. "Sometimes we forget that blindness and other visual impairments in developing countries have far greater economic and social consequences than they do in more developed countries. Training people in those regions who can alleviate that burden is essential to ending preventable blindness worldwide."
Burundi – John Cropsey, MD
"The biggest challenge to eye health in Burundi is that virtually no eye care exists outside the capital city of Bujumbura, leaving more than 9 million people in one of the world's poorest, least- developed countries without legitimate access to care," said Dr. Cropsey, a clinical faculty member at Hope Africa University. "The most rewarding part of my career is bringing eye care where it has never existed before. Telling someone who fully expects to die blind that they have a real chance to see again and then seeing that reality come to fruition is truly a precious thing to behold. It is something worth dedicating one's life to."
Sub-Saharan Africa – Roger C. Furlong, MD
"While there are different challenges everywhere you go, training local physicians to do eye care is of utmost importance," said Dr. Furlong, volunteer ophthalmologist in sub-Saharan Africa and adjunct professor of ophthalmology and visual sciences at the University of Utah, School of Medicine Moran Eye Center. "While there are often smart and dedicated physicians in these countries, they are often stymied by the lack of infrastructure and support needed to succeed. But the ability to have such a great impact on the lives of others, especially in places where there are no other means for people to receive eye care, is the most rewarding part of what I do. Watching the changes that happen to these people, their families and communities is an incredible and humbling experience that ends up changing you as well."
Nigeria, Peru – Linda Lawrence, MD
"Both in developed and developing countries, people who are preverbal or nonverbal and have visual impairment and other disabilities are often overlooked," said Dr. Lawrence, volunteer faculty member for project ORBIS, a global nonprofit aimed at helping the visually impaired. "Working with teams to develop the best ways to enhance 'right to sight for all,' regardless of abilities, has been an extremely rewarding part of my career. I have been blessed to have this opportunity with multiple NGOs in the United States as well as Nigeria, Peru and other developing countries to help eye teams that are identifying infants and toddlers with visual impairment earlier, so proper eye care and rehabilitation can be instituted, and they can live to the best of their potential."
Haiti – Mildred M.G. Olivier, MD
"The biggest challenge to eye health in many countries is the inability for many to access the health care system," said Dr. Olivier, volunteer ophthalmologist in Haiti and assistant dean for diversity and professor of ophthalmology at Chicago Medical School at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science. "When they do, medications and surgical opportunities for a chronic disease like glaucoma are often not affordable or cannot be sustained for a long period of time. One day I hope changes in medical care can make glaucoma an avoidable cause of blindness. While we work toward this goal, I get incredible satisfaction from the opportunity to educate present and future generations of the ophthalmic community both in the United States and internationally. Through work with various organizations over the years, it never ceases to amaze me that one individual can make an enormous difference in this world. Every morning, I look in the mirror and challenge myself to make a change in another person's life."
India – Gullapalli N. Rao, MD
"Reaching the most neglected populations with high- quality eye care and seeing the great impact this makes in people's lives is by far the most rewarding aspect of my career as an ophthalmologist," said Dr. Rao, director of the L.V. Prasad Eye Institute in India. "Nevertheless, there are many challenges that we must confront when providing eye care; in particular there is a gross misdistribution of supplies affecting getting care to those who need it the most."