As many faithful readers of the paper know, the Himalayan Cataract Project has an office in Waterbury, running an international nonprofit that has performed 893,452 surgeries, helping people suffering from needless blindness or impaired vision.
The project changes lives through cataract surgeries, screening for glasses and glaucoma, and a variety of other services.
From its modest 10-person operation in Waterbury, it reaches around the world to help people via fundraising, training and outreach efforts, connecting partners separated by millions of miles.
Its heroic and tireless doctors, nurses, optometrists and technicians have performed hundreds of thousands of life-changing operations, and have train others to do the same, helping to build the Himalayan Cataract Project’s expansive training network.
Through the ingenious work of Dr. Sanduk Ruit and Dr. Geoff Tabin, the organization’s co-founders, cataracts can now be treated in hospitals or non-hospital settings with a one-time, low-cost procedure, allowing far more people to be treated, especially in remote locations.
The procedure, known as small incision cataract surgery, can be completed in mere minutes, the materials costing only $25 per eye.
Because of these innovative techniques, physicians like Dr. Kumale Tolesa and Dr. Srijana Adhikari are able to help their communities in ways not possible before.
Inspired by others
Dr. Kumale is an experienced ophthalmologist working in southwest Ethiopia, helping to eradicate curable blindness in the next generation.
Growing up in Ethiopia, Kumale saw how many people suffered needlessly from cataracts, unable to get the medical attention they needed because there weren’t many ophthalmologists in the area — or, for that matter, the country.
“Since my childhood, I have been aspiring to help patients, and specifically, I became an ophthalmologist because I saw a lot of very poor people seeking medical attention,” Kumale said.
People with limited funds can’t afford treatments at or transportation to one of the few equipped medical facilities in Ethiopia. Kumale was inspired to become an ophthalmologist on an outreach she attended as she watched two ophthalmologists struggle to meet the needs of the people, especially poor people.
Watching Dr. Fisseha, one of the leading ophthalmologists, work tirelessly to meet the never-ending demand inspired Kumale to follow in her mentor’s footsteps, cementing her path to ophthalmology.
Soon after, Kumale was introduced to the Himalayan Cataract Project while working at Jimma University, and continued to seize training opportunities through the organization. That training included a visit to the Tilganga Institute of Ophthalmology in Nepal, where she had access to expertise and technology that helped her to hone her skills.
Kumale continues to help her community, serving as the “only ophthalmologist working with the pediatric age group in southwest Ethiopia with a population of 15 million, where children account for nearly half of the population.”
Like Dr. Kumale, Dr. Srajina felt pulled to a medical profession at a young age — specifically, pediatrics. Despite her passion and excellent academics, Srajina wasn’t allowed to pursue her choice of specialty.
But, when one door closes, another opens, and it led to ophthalmology — specifically, pediatric ophthalmology. After her work with schoolchildren during her medical residency, Srajina fell in love with the profession, seeing what a deep impact her work had.
Srajina came in contact with the Himalayan Cataract Project for the first time in 2009 through the Tilganga Institute of Ophthalmology, located in Kathmandu, Nepal — her home country. Since then, she has been both the trainee and the mentor.
“Being a mentor is a huge responsibility,” she said. “Every student is different, so you have to understand that and modify your teaching methods. That’s a big challenge. … I face the challenge of giving training on surgeries and at the same time giving optimum treatment to the patient.”
Srajina formats her teaching methods to her students, who come from many cultural and geographical backgrounds. Her personalized style is also evident when she treats patients, choosing to “treat the child, not the disease. … Don’t think it’s a case with cataracts; it’s a child with cataracts.”
‘Looking for the best’
While Srajina and Kumale are humble about their accomplishments, Job Heintz, the CEO of the Himalayan Cataract Project, is more than happy to toot their horns for them.
Heintz’s family, home and office are in Waterbury, which is a touchstone between his trips all over the world, visiting treatment and training centers.
From this perspective, Heintz has had the privilege of helping the organization grow and diversify.
The Himalayan Cataract Project’s training process is focused entirely on capabilities, he said.
“One of the things I’m most proud about with the Himalayan Cataract Project is that our decision-making in who we support … really is agnostic as to gender; we’re looking for the best, most capable, brightest, most excited, most natural born leaders,” Heintz said.
Because of that bias-free process, women are able to rise not only in ophthalmology, but throughout the organization.
Take for instance Dr. Reeta Gurung, who is CEO of the Tilganga Institute in Nepal. The institute was largely established by Himalayan Cataract Project founders, and plays a large role in the training of doctors like Dr. Srijana. In 2018, the institute had more than 1,534 trainees from 43 countries attending programs all over the world, with a total of 18,616 trainees since inception.
The Himalayan Cataract Project has been able to partner with skilled doctors who fully understand their patients’ conditions, whether they’re adult women or younger girls.
This diversity-friendly partnering system is not charity, Heintz says; the project does not go out of its way to diversify, as there’s no need to. When given an equal chance, amazing women rise on their own.
“We didn’t set out to say, ‘OK, let’s make these decisions based on gender,’” Heintz said. “The cool part is, by being agnostic to that, you have these incredible people who happen to be women. And they’re running things.”
These changes reach past the project, pervading countries and cultures. “It strengthens not just eye care, but it strengthens culture and the women’s movement. … It’s a great thing for women,” Heintz said. “It’s because of their capabilities and motivations and leadership. … For me, it’s amazing as a father of two girls in this society where anything’s possible.”
Cataracts can present a child with insurmountable challenges, delaying both their social and educational development. Families can be crippled by the loss of field hands or working members who are sidelined by cataracts, or carrying the responsibility of caring for a child who is blind. By restoring their sight, their lives are given back.
To donate or learn more about the Himalayan Cataract Project, its founders and its work, visit cureblindness.org.
Sage Lively, a rising senior at Stowe High School, is an intern at the Stowe Reporter and Waterbury Record.