For UCI Health ophthalmologist Dr. Sanjay Kedhar, performing eye surgery in a remote Himalayan village in Nepal required finding a table big enough to be an operating surface, and rolling out sleeping bags on the floor for a night’s rest. And that was the easy part.
To get to Machha Kohla in Nepal’s Gorkha district, he and a volunteer team of eye doctors made a long trek in a four-wheel-drive vehicle, followed by two days of hiking on treacherous, high-altitude trails, carrying eyeglasses, surgical equipment and other supplies in their backpacks and on the backs of mules.
“There’s no road into this area,” explains Kedhar, who joined the medical mission organized by Operation Restore Vision. “It was probably only 15 to 20 miles of hiking, but with constant elevation changes.”
Room for surgery, but no table
Kedhar, a cornea specialist and associate professor of ophthalmology at the UCI Health Gavin Herbert Eye Institute, and the team would spend three days in the village, mostly performing cataract surgeries.
There was a place for the doctors to spread their sleeping bags at night. And there was a room to perform surgery — but no operating table.
“We had to scour the town searching for a suitable table,” Kedhar says.
“There was just one. We found it at a restaurant and thankfully they let us use it for the few days we were there.”
Patients flocked from smaller surrounding villages to be treated for vision problems.
Over the three days, Kedhar and his fellow physicians screened 800 patients and performed surgery on 71 of them. The mission also arranged to provide food for the patients and places for them to stay.
Local monks get the word out
“We work with the local monastery,” Kedhar says. “So the monks actually go out into the villages to let the community know there will be an eye camp.”
Schools sent their students for eye exams. Many of patients needed reading glasses, which the mission team provided free of charge. Other patients needed antibiotics or special eye medications.
Though the Nepalese patients are unfamiliar with surgery, Kedhar says, they tend to be less nervous about it than many American patients. They get no medication to help them relax before surgery, just local anesthetic injections around the eye. Afterward, they leave with bandages that remain on for a day or so.
Overjoyed to see again
As stoic as they were, once the bandages were removed, some of the patients reacted with clear astonishment and joy. One man who began to dance wanted the doctors to join him.
Another patient had been carried into town by her son-in-law.
“She had had very bad cataracts in both eyes for the past three years,” Kedhar says. The son-in-law had been carrying the nearly blind woman most places during that time because without sight it was impossible for her to traverse the uneven terrain in their mountainous area.
When the woman’s bandages were taken off, she gazed all around, drinking in the colors of everything. The day after her surgery, she walked out of town on her own, Kedhar says, adding, “The son-in-law was probably happier than she was.”
Watch a video about the mission