Giving the gift of sight in Peru

Noah Cohen ('09)/ Eastside Editor-in-Chief

Eye surgeryAs residents of Cherry Hill in the great country of the United States, we take for granted many luxuries. Perhaps the list of luxuries can begin with throwing away our toilet paper in the toilet to ending with having a roof over our heads at night. On July 5th, my family and I embarked on a journey to Peru, a country where in most places throwing your toilet paper in the trash can and having no roof over your head was the norm. As this trip was materializing in the spring, many of my neighbors and friends asked a common question, “Why Peru?” And every time I knew what the answer would be.

As he did in Africa two summers ago, my dad, an ophthalmologist, had signed up to do cataract surgery for patients in Peru. He joined forces with an organization called SEE (Surgical Eye Expeditions) International, which gives poor or less fortunate people around the world the gift of sight. After hearing endless stories and seeing hundreds of pictures of when just my brother, Jesse, went with my dad to help out patients in Namibia, Africa, I knew that the upcoming experience would be amazing. But, I have to admit, I was not sure what exactly to expect.

After enduring the normal flight delays, my family arrived in Lima, Peru. Here we boarded a bus and met the other members of the 18-person team that was put together by SEE International. After an 8-hour ride, we arrived in the city of Huanchaco, where we stayed for the night. Then, in the morning, we took the bus for nine more hours up huge mountains and across winding, gravel roads to a place now cemented in my heart named Huamachuco. (Yes, the two places just mentioned are very similar and easily confused.)

After settling into the hotel, everyone enjoyed a sound sleep after the stress of the dangerous trip. In the morning everyone besides the doctors and the head organizer, a man named Mario Diaz, went on a tour of the city. The doctors and Mario, an American businessman who had grown up in Huamachuco, went to set up the hospital. They also began screening patients and seeing which of them would need cataract surgery.

Each day, for the five days of this mission, the group would arrive at the hospital in a pickup truck at around 8:30 a.m. The patients who were assigned for surgery were situated in chairs right outside of the hospital doors. Throughout the day each patient would be called inside and would first put on a sterile head, shoe and body cover. Next they would go to a room in which my mom would dilate their eyes with various drops. Then, I was in charge of manning two machines: the A-scan and the Keratometer. Together, the measurements of these two machines produced measurements to calculate the necessary power of the artificial lens that would be implanted into the patient’s eye after the cataract (the hazy human lens) was removed.

After my job was completed, one of the doctors would inject anesthetic around the patients’ eyes in preparation for surgery. Soon after, the patient underwent the surgery. After being escorted out after the 25-minute surgery, the nurses in the hospital removed the patient’s sterile coverings and told him or her to return at 8 a.m. the following morning for a post-operative visit. Some nights, the surgeons and their assistants had to stay until 10:30 p.m. in order to complete the surgeries for the day.

During the two-day, country-wide strike that we endured in Peru, a few less patients came for their surgeries. Also due to the strike, we had a few thousand protesters chanting outside of our doors and windows, which added some excitement to the day’s activities! We even had army troops with riot gear protecting the hospital.

The best experience for me was the post-operation examination. The doctors removed the patches that had been placed on the patients’ eyes and the patients could see for the first time out of the operated eye. Seeing each smile on the faces of the patients made the trip worthwhile!

Another highlight of the trip was a 30-year-old who had cataracts in both eyes, which is a very young age for this disease. After two successful surgeries, the man was finally able to see again, thus altering his life forever. Another man ran eight hours from his home to the hospital for cataract surgery. The man, forced to run due to the lack of bus transportation because of the strike, was red in the face and overheated when he arrived at the hospital. We gave him some soup and water before he went in for surgery. Whether it was helping patients to and from the operating room or whether I just sat and observed an operation, I knew that I was aiding and witnessing changing people’s lives forever.