10 minutes to sight
Eye surgeon Matt Oliva of Medford says he loves to restore vision for blind people in Africa, which he does 100 times a day with a 10-minute cataract operation that costs $50 in materials and leaves patients bandaged overnight.
In the morning comes the big, life-changing moment, a seeming miracle as bandages are taken off, with hoots and dances of joy, hugging and elders looking on the faces of grandchildren for the first time.
Oliva, a volunteer with the Himalayan Cataract Project, travels to Ethiopia three times a year, often with his physician-wife and two young children helping, to whittle down the queue of a million-plus people suffering from blindness, to train native doctors to do the procedure, and to help build an eye hospital and equip it with modern tools.
Watching the emotional celebration is something Oliva never gets used to.
“It’s an assembly line, with me doing 100 surgeries a day, and a 98 percent success rate. They take off the patches, put drops in and you get lots of hugs.”
When his children assist, they sterilize instruments, put on bandages and eye patches and help patients around. He lets his kids, who are in second and fourth grade, remove the patches.
“People around the world love children,” says Oliva. “So looking at a kid’s face brings such a smile, as the first thing they see.”
Ashland photographer Christopher Briscoe shot photos with Oliva for a month, working on a fundraising coffee-table-type book for donors. In an unpublished article, he wrote it was “life-changing” watching eye surgeons from all over the world restore vision for up to 300 people a day, while working in a fabric dome in remote backcountry.
“The most rewarding part,” writes Briscoe, “is doing the post-op portrait and interview, at times in the patient’s mud and straw hut, sitting on the dirt floor with the children and the chickens. I am still shocked to see how a 10-minute operation can change a life forever.”
He quotes a patient, Aynalem Takele, “I used to be independent. I almost became a begger. Thanks to God and my doctors, I am back on my feet and independent again. When I was blind, I used to get mad when some people refused to help me. I cursed them. I thought my life was over. I was sure I would never see again. Today when the bandages on my face were taken off, I saw my clothes, the color of the cloth and everything. I felt I was seeing something I never saw before. I wanted to dance and jump as high as my chicken. I thought it wouldn’t be appropriate so I didn’t. I feel like I have been born again.”
Oliva says the cataract procedure is “a straightforward thing, the low-hanging fruit of public health intervention, a step that can dramatically change people’s lives with low-cost surgery. It’s a problem we can completely solve.”
At Medical Eye Center in Medford, Oliva partners with ophthalmologist John Welling, who joins the efforts in Africa. As part of the Himalayan Cataract Project, they team up with 23 other U.S. eye doctors in Africa, which is called “the continent of blindness.”
The affliction is rife there, says Oliva, because of poor nutrition, high altitude and lifelong lack of access to quality health care.
“In America, we have one doctor for every 20,000 people,” says Oliva. “In Africa, it’s one for every million people. Everyone gets cataracts with age, and we’re all living longer. Everyone in America gets cataract removal when they have trouble driving at night. Over there, the eye care doesn’t get done, and the need is so massive. And many blind people live in absolute poverty. We’re only doing 90,000 surgeries a year in Africa. We want to do 300,000.”
Oliva and Welling have also done the outreach program in Nepal, which has seen a huge drop in blindness rates. They did 730 people on the last trip in Africa.
“There’s so much need, and the impact of sight restoration is the most fun part of what we do,” Welling says. “It’s unique and pretty life-changing for them and us. You’d think it might be exhausting and, well, it is emotionally demanding to be that focused all day, but it’s also so energizing and motivating, taking the patches off.
“We look forward to every trip. It reminds us of why we went into medicine. You do the surgery, and next day someone gets their life back and can provide for their family and have their kids go to school. It’s really a generational impact.”
When in medical school at University of Washington, Oliva did research in Africa, coming face-to-face with the problem. Once in practice, he connected with the founders of the Himalayan Cataract Project and found, “It’s simple. I love helping people see better. Eye care is so important to people and their families. It affects communities. I love working side-by-side with Ethiopian doctors and nurses. I love taking the bandages off and seeing them filled with sheer joy after they get their sight back. I love the culture, the food and the people. As much time as I can spare doing this, I will.”