Helping the blind see

Medford eye doctor has worked with Himalayan Cataract Project for years
Oliva describes the Himalayan Cataract Project Thursday at the Medical Eye Center in Medford. Mail Tribune / Julia MooreJulia Moore

On an April morning in Nepal, one of the poorest countries in the world, Dr. Matt Oliva and his colleagues with the Himalayan Cataract Project stood before a line of 150 people with white bandages over their eyes.

Each had been blind for months, years or even decades.

If you go

What: Dr. Matt Oliva's reading of David Relin's "Second Suns."

When: 7 p.m. Monday, July 29

Where: Bloomsbury Books, 290 East Main St., Ashland.

Oliva and other doctors had spent 14 hours removing their cataracts the day before. As the patients took off their bandages, Oliva paid particular attention to one woman who had been blind for nine years. She had stood out to him because she had clapped excitedly even before she entered the operating room.

As she removed her bandages, she immediately looked past the white doctor in front of her to her son and began crying. It was the first time she had ever seen him.

"You're really able to restore someone's life and dignity and allow them to live longer," Oliva said. "It's a magical moment when patients remove their bandages."

The Himalayan Cataract Project was started by Sanduk Ruit, a Nepalese ophthalmologist, and Geoffrey Tabin, an American ophthalmologist, in 1995 because of the high rates of blindness in Nepal.

Their philosophy was that even the world's poorest people deserved to have good vision and excellent eye care.

Oliva, an ophthalmologist for the Medical Eye Center in Medford, has worked with the HCP since 1998 when he first went to Nepal with Tabin and Ruit. He joined the project's board of directors in 2006.

Oliva will do a reading of David Relin's "Second Suns," which tells the story of Ruit and Tabin's quest to restore sight in the poorest of countries, at 7 p.m. Monday, July 29, at Bloomsbury Books, 290 E. Main St., Ashland.

Relin made his name as co-author of the bestseller "Three Cups of Tea," then committed suicide in the wake of allegations that many details in the book were fabricated. "Second Suns" is being released posthumously by Random House, which originally delayed publication but now says it is confident the story is accurate.

After the allegations came out about "Three Cups of Tea," Relin hired a fact-checker for "Second Suns." It was not clear that his suicide was connected with the scandal.

The HCP's vision of sustainable eye care has spread from Nepal to Bhutan, northern China, northern India, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Ghana and South Sudan, Oliva said.

"There are 18 million people in the world that are blind in both eyes from cataracts," he said. "Around 60 million people worldwide are in various stages of blindness due to cataracts in either one or both eyes."

Hundreds of patients line up at designated camps, awaiting the surgery that will transform their lives.

Doctors make small slits in the eyeball, remove cataracts and insert artificial lenses, Oliva said. The project has helped develop techniques to remove cataracts quickly and at low costs.

"We are able to remove cataracts in about seven to eight minutes," he said. "We use very low-cost equipment so surgeries can be done in schools and in places without electricity."

In addition to performing surgeries at no cost to the patients, the HCP doctors also train their colleagues in third-world countries to perform the surgeries and teach nurses how to do proper follow-ups.

At the Tilganga Institute of Ophthalmology in Nepal, which the HCP started in 1994, eye doctors and nurses learn how to perform high-volume and high-quality surgeries, Oliva said.

"Even the poorest of people recognize high quality," Oliva said.

In 1995, there were 10,000 surgeries being performed in Nepal. Currently, the program is performing nearly 250,000 surgeries a year.

One young boy carried his mother in a basket on his back to reach the remote eye surgery camp in Nepal, one of the many poignant stories in Relin's book.

"The bottom line of the story is the joy of sight restoration and a message of hope that it is possible to eradicate blindness if enough resources are brought to bear," Oliva said.

Reach Mail Tribune intern Amanda Barker at 541-776-4368 or by email at

Reader Reaction
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Rules. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or fill out this form. New comments are only accepted for two weeks from the date of publication.