Seeing an elderly Tibetan woman weep with joy when cataract surgery restored her vision after 10 years is the kind of moment Dave Razo will never tire of.
For several summers Razo, a member of the Rotary Club of Warner Robins, Georgia, USA, traveled to rural northwest China with a team from Georgia-based nonprofit Gansu Inc., to provide free sight-restoring cataract surgery to some of the country's poorest residents. In 2012, after 22 years and 6,000 successful procedures, Gansu's founder, ophthalmologist William Conrad, retired and discontinued the organization's operations.
But Razo didn't want the effort to end. He had seen how life-changing the surgery could be, not only for the patients but for their families and their community.
"When you see the face of someone who regains their sight for the first time in years, you can't help but share their overwhelming happiness and gratification," says Razo, who is a retired U.S. Air Force pilot. "There was so much good work done by Dr. Conrad and his organization that I felt I could continue his legacy through Rotary."
Cataract, a clouding of the lens of the eye, is responsible for an estimated 2.5 million cases of blindness in China, nearly half of the country's blind population. In rural areas, blindness can be a death sentence for villagers who must walk dangerous mountain trails to obtain food and water.
Nearly half of China's population lives in rural areas, without access to the same health care as urban residents. With its huge population of older people, China is likely to face a growing backlog of people in need of cataract surgery, Razo says. "Chinese families in these regions are close knit, and three or four generations often live together. So giving sight to a patriarch or matriarch has a multiplier effect for the family and the community," he says.
Razo turns to Rotary to continue the project
During one of his missions with Gansu, Razo had met Frank Yih, of the Rotary Club of Shanghai. Yih, who is chair of the nonprofit HuaQiao Foundation, which provides in-country logistical support for international charities, arranged housing for team members during their last two visits to China. When Gansu closed its doors, Razo's Rotary club and the Shanghai club partnered to fund cataract surgery for 400 people at two hospitals in the northeast provinces of Shandong, Gansu, and Qinghai, as well as remote areas closer to Shanghai.
The clubs raised a total of $46,000, including $21,000 in matching funds from The Rotary Foundation. The surgeries, each of which cost about $110 and took about two hours, were completed in June. The Shanghai club collaborated with Vision in Practice, an organization that provides surgical training, consultation, and assistance to eye care institutions and professionals, to oversee the procedures and assist hospital staff.
Yih says the grant project has introduced a low-cost, high-quality cataract surgery model into the Chinese health care system, and he hopes his club can help expand the effort.
"If this type of surgery and outreach can be integrated nationwide, millions of elders in the rural villages can enjoy the benefit of regaining their vision through affordable operations," says Yih. "This will ease the burden of our country's health care dramatically."