Himalayan Cataract Project opening eyes

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Himalayan Cataract Project opening eyes

Job Heintz, speaking in the Stearns Performance Space

Job Heintz, speaking in the Stearns Performance Space

Victoria Greenia

Job Heintz, speaking in the Stearns Performance Space

Victoria Greenia

Victoria Greenia

Job Heintz, speaking in the Stearns Performance Space

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“Be willing to take advantage of opportunities you might not think is in the area of where you are going,” Job Heintz, Vermont lawyer and chief executive officer of the Himalaya Cataract Project, said to the Creative Audience crowd in Stearns Performance Space Monday, Feb. 3. “Happiness will go a long way, too.”

Also a former mountaineering instructor for National Outdoor Leadership School, Heintz has gone all over the world to cross some of Mother Nature’s most difficult terrain. This love of meeting challenges full-force is what led him to the most rewarding challenge of his life: helping an eye clinic in the Himalayas perform free, quick surgeries on people blinded by cataracts.

He explained that when a person has a cataract, the lens of his or her eye is becoming clouded and can lead to blindness. Most of the presentation, however, focused on the inspiring people he works with and the program that is the changing lives of millions of people. All of this, he said, was because he was willing to travel down unknown paths life presented.

Through Heintz’s interest in mountain climbing he met Dr. Geoff Tabin, an eye surgeon and co-founder of the Himalayan Cataract Project. Coincidentally, it was a mountain climbing adventure in 1994 that led Tabin to start his clinic; the project’s website said, “After summiting Mt. Everest, on one of his expeditions, he came across a Dutch team performing cataract surgery on a woman who had been needlessly blind for three years. It was then he understood his life calling.”

For Heintz, it’s knowing that hundreds of thousands of people are afflicted with an easily curable yet debilitating condition that keeps him motivated. When overseas volunteering at the centers, he is not assisting with the operations, but instead he is performing  administrative and legal work that allows the non-profit to operate.

Stateside he spreads the word, just as he was doing at JSC Monday night, advocating for HCP by getting people excited to physically or financially help.

The program depends on donations. In the early years the cost to run the program was about $100,000. Now, with the expansion of multiple sites in Himalaya, Africa, and even North Korea, it operates on a yearly budget closer to $6 million. Hopeful numbers validate the cost: In 2012 the HCP screened 701,343 patients and performed 46,358 sight-restoring surgeries.

Innovative and cost-cutting processes help make the dream of restored sight a reality to the poorest of the poor in the world. Taber’s partner and co-founder of the HCP, eye surgeon Dr. Sanduk Ruit, has developed a suture-less form of cataract surgery that his website describes as “a technique that allows safe, high-volume, low-budget operations.” With this skill he can perform dozens of “flawless” operations a day in the clinic camps.

Spurred by the high-cost of an expensive intraocular lens that is implanted in the eye during surgery, Ruit tirelessly researched how to make them on his own. In the 1990s, when he began the clinics, the price was $100 a lens. Heintz said Ruit was able to figure out how to make them for less than a dollar, saving millions for the organization.

Overall, HCP’s cost of $20-$100 per surgery is cheap compared to the astounding American hospital’s cost of $3000 per surgery that it’s drawn some attention. Heintz said they’ve declined interviews from mainstream media, including “60 Minutes.” Mostly people want to know why there’s such a cost variation. The organization isn’t prepared to tackle that conversation just yet.
He did say, however, that procedures were different. In fact, during the early years of the program, HCP came under fire by people accusing them of giving substandard care to developing nations. Although the outreach clinics may not look the same, Heintz said, HCP surgeons were delivering valued care whether “in a stone hut or in a major hospital.”

In America, the standard is now using lasers to emulsify the cataract. Some of the medical community thought using knives was out-dated and inefficient. Always up for a challenge, the intrepid group invited them to Nepal for randomized tests.

Over a six-month period the study rated each procedure by the number of complications, the time it took to do surgery, and how well the patient’s vision had been corrected. The results were recorded by Ruit, Tabin, and colleagues in the Journal of Ophthalmology in January, 2007. The conclusion: both procedures were excellent at restoring sight with few complications. However, it was noted that the virtues of Ruit’s technique were that it was cheaper, quicker, and less cumbersome than its counterpart.

“The outcome for the five-minute version was no worse than state of the art,” Heintz said. “In fact, when you factor in time and cost, this is the same value.”

Time is a valuable gift for doctors who travel as much as HCP doctors do to reach their patients. The Himalaya is known for steep crevices and high mountain tops, and medical pioneers, along with volunteers, will travel by foot for days to reach remote clinical outposts, boxes of medical supplies laden on bent backs.

Every footstep is worth it, though, the day after the surgeries when the patients take the medical eye patches off. “They just go crazy,” grinned Heintz. By the time HCP sees them, many people had given up hope of having a productive life.

More than eyesight, the program has given a mission and a skill set to medically-minded people in the developing countries; the volunteer doctors have trained more than 100 new doctors and 100 assistants in the past 20 years. Like their contagious enthusiasm, the knowledge of how to cure this disease is also spreading –all this from a few guys in Vermont who shared a love of mountain climbing and, as it turns out, helping humankind.

Heintz ended the presentation with a 10-minute documentary covering a HCP event in Ethiopia where the surgeons operated and restored sight to 1,100 people in six days. Imbedded on HCP’s homepage, it was created by Eric Perlman and is called “Vision: Healing the Blind in Ethiopia.”

Highlighting the struggles of western African people, the video included the sobering statistic that there are 70 million blind Ethiopians and only 30 eye surgeons. Translated testimonies of people before and after the cataract surgery make the video meaningful and, as they’re intended to, tug at the heart strings.

Talking with the nationals, we see people who are scared and some doubtful. A few faces are weathered, scarred, and pained. Many more are also weathered and scarred, but lit up with hope. All share the common desire to see the world around them and feel alive again.

Sometimes their stories are simple, such as one woman who begins by saying her name is Hari Corowen. “I’ve been blind for seven years. I just sit all day by the smoky fire and do nothing. Sometimes I can hear my daughter and grandson in the corner but I have never seen him.”

Few could ignore the pain of Yamata Dao, who said, “I have been blind for eight years and I hate being such a burden to my family. Sometimes at night I can hear my daughter praying that I will die so she can take care of her own children instead of me. I don’t blame her. Sometimes I think death would be better than this.”

And then there are stories that remind viewers how dangerous blindness can be for people who live in developing countries. Seraha Bizou Tegenye said, “I only go to the outhouse once every four to five days. Between the rocks and flies and sharp, rusted metal, it’s so dangerous to get there and back. I hardly ever want to eat.”

Nerve-wracking is how a doctor describes the mood as hundreds of blind people congregate outside the HCP clinic for surgery. Some had never traveled so far from home nor been on a bus. When a patient is finally brought inside, the quick prepping and then five-minute surgery is a whirlwind to them.

And then, said Dao, so quickly it seems the bandages come off. “At first I’m not sure, the daylight is so strong. And then… yes!”

Others, grabbing the doctors and assistants’ hands or kissing their faces exclaim, “I knew it, I knew it was true – I see you know. A miracle with light in your hands!” or “You, people of skill, have restored my life. You are my sunshine, you are my everything. For years I lived in the dark, part dead, part asleep. Now my sight and my world and my life have all returned!”

Many people, overcome with emotion, simply stretched their arms to the sky in praised, dancing, and calling out sounds of joy.
Viewers got to follow the patients post-operation and back to their homes. Corowen gets to see her grandson, Tegenye can now follow a safer diet, but best of Dao feels like a useful human being with a reason to live. “No one is praying for me to die, especially me. I am so glad to be alive,” she said.

Johnson students in the crowd said the video was good and that the program was impressive. Responses from the crowd included questions like how did HCP get its funding and whether it did internships.

Heintz said the group thrives on volunteers, personal donations, private foundations, and corporations. The Unites States Agency for International Development also contributes around 25 percent to pay for the brick and mortar for new buildings.

People interested in going down an unknown path and volunteering with HCP are invited to email the group at info@cureblindness.org. As Heintz said over and over during his speech, when life presents an opportunity, one should grab on to it and go ahead full force. Perhaps then those people could echo his feelings when he said, “Here I can do something simple and make a humongous impact on the world.”

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