Grey Mist Lifting

A Weekly Blog About Lives Changed Through Eye Care

Lynda Cherry, former Vice-President of International Programs

We must see through their eyes (Part 1 of 2)


Have you ever wondered why Operation Eyesight is so big on quality? It’s a fair question. Why insist on high international standards for poor people? Isn’t just about anything better than what they have?

Many tribal women refuse to seek treatment because they are afraid that failed cataract surgery may take away their poor eyesight all together. (Photo by Peter Carrette.)

To answer that, picture a tribal woman in a remote part of India, who is going blind from cataracts. She’s a poor woman who knows if she can’t see she can’t work; and if she can’t work, she doesn’t eat. The woman knows there is an eye clinic not too far away that can fix her eyes free of charge. But she doesn’t go.

Why not? Because she knows people with similar problems who have gone to that clinic, and came back worse than before. The woman may be poor, but she’s no fool. She would rather live with the grey fog of cataract-clouded vision than risk being permanently blinded, or in pain due to a botched surgery.

Throughout India and other countries with large populations of low income people, this scenario plays out over and over. Cataract is the main cause of avoidable blindness everywhere, affecting millions of people; yet cataracts are relatively easy and inexpensive to correct.

Many charitable eye clinics, in their efforts to restore sight to cataract sufferers, have been pushing people through the system for years. Medical teams cut corners and take chances that would be unthinkable in other countries. The emphasis on quantity (instead of quality) translates into failed surgeries. It’s still happening today. Many hospitals that offer free treatment to the poor receive their funding based on the number of people they treat, instead of how many people get healed.

In 2003, a landmark research project studied the impact of all those cataract surgeries. It confirmed that yes, cataract was the number one cause of blindness – about 50 percent of all cases. Cause number two? Failed cataract surgeries.

This news landed with a thud throughout the international eye care community. I can tell you how Operation Eyesight responded: we resolved to place quality among our top priorities. We communicated this expectation to our medical partners, and lost some who were unwilling to work towards our goals in the process. Since then, we have invested in upgrades to facilities, training, equipment and procedures. While this is still a work in progress in some regions, we are working with all of our hospital partners to achieve World Health Organization (WHO) standards in surgical outcomes – the same as in Canada, where I live.

But there’s more! Quality is not just about best practices; it’s about how we regard the people who need our help – people like that same tribal woman I mentioned earlier. Come back on June 8 when I’ll describe what we see when we look through her eyes. And learn more about our approach to quality in our Spring 2012 newsletter, “No compromise: Quality is key to achieving sustainable development.”

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