Issaquah doc has eye for aiding the sightless 7,000 miles away
June 30, 2009
By Chantelle Lusebrink
If you could give someone sight, how far would you go to do it?
Joining with the Himalayan Cataract Project, Dr. Janet Barrall, an ophthalmologist for Virginia Mason in Issaquah, traveled nearly 7,000 miles to give the gift of sight to 158 people in need.
“It’s profoundly deep and completely life-changing to give sight,” she said. “It is so necessary to their way of life.”
Today, there are 37 million blind people throughout the world, according to the World Health Organization. Many suffer from cataracts.Cataracts cause your eye lens to become cloudy and are caused by exposure to high amounts of ultraviolet light, malnutrition, dehydration and/or can form as part of the aging process, Barrall said.
Vision is necessary for survival in Nepal. That’s why Barrall brought her husband and traveled with mentor, Dr. Daniel Karr, to Nepal from March 13 to April 4 to work with the Himalayan Cataract Project’s founder, Dr. Sanduk Ruit.
“I first heard about Dr. Ruit about 10 years ago, when Dr. Karr went to Nepal and helped with surgeries in Kathmandu,” Barrall said. “That inspired me initially.”
Ruit founded the organization in 1995, after developing a procedure that could be completed in remote regions of the Himalayas for only $20. To reach as many people as possible, Ruit takes teams of doctors, equipment and a mobile surgery room to them.
Since its inception, Ruit and teams of doctors have performed the surgeries throughout the Himalayas, Africa and Asia. In 2007, they were able to perform 12,000 surgeries.
A world away for change
Barrall said it was hard to not recognize the overwhelming poverty and lack of development in the country’s capital city, Kathmandu.
After spending a few days in the capital, Barrall and other volunteers traveled 14 hours to the country’s eastern region of Ramechhap where they would set up their temporary clinic and perform cataract surgery. With few communications systems, the team of doctors and volunteers handed out flyers about their clinic to children and adults along the way, Barrall said.
Arriving at Dorumba, 8,000 feet up in the Himalayas, the team was met by local leaders, who helped them set up a temporary surgery ward in an abandoned 1950s Swiss building that needed to be sterilized and hooked up to a rickety propane generator for power. They also created a vision-screening clinic outside and set up recovery shelters in a courtyard near the building.
No sooner did they begin to unpack their clinic than patients began arriving, Barrall said. A line of at least 500 mothers, children, fathers and the elderly formed near the gates of the old building, stretching through the woods to the roadway.
“Everyone that showed up got examined,” she said. “There was a men’s and women’s line and everyone helped — the police, the kids. I loved it. It was a big community effort.”
After vision screening, those who needed surgery were separated out and prepped. Those who couldn’t be helped at the camp were given free bus tickets to Ruit’s Tilganga Eye Center in Kathmandu, she said.
A test of courage
Though she was supposed to only provide support at the camp, one of Ruit’s other surgeons didn’t show up and Barrall was asked to perform surgery using his technique.
On a single sheet of paper on a very cold morning, Barrall received a crash course in Ruit’s technique.
“He was literally telling me how to do his surgery that morning while drawing it on a piece of paper with a pen,” she said. “I was a little stressed, because these are techniques that we’re not used to using.”
The procedure is far from what is done in clinics today, she said. In fact, it is something similar to a procedure used more than 20 years ago in the U.S.
“My husband gave me a pep talk,” she added. “He said, ‘These people won’t get another chance and every person you do is going to do better because of you.’”
At the end of the day, she said she agreed with her husband: It wasn’t about her fear. It was about helping people see, like the 70-year-old man who walked more than five miles with his blind 90-year-old mother on his back to the camp, or the regal-looking elderly woman who was Barrall’s second patient, she said.
“Most people here have never seen a Westerner,” she said. “Yet, they traveled for who knows how many miles, with no shoes, at 8,000 feet, with complete trust.
“It was so different from here. There was no informed consent. They just trusted that we were doctors and were there to help them.”
One by one, they’d hop on the operating table in front of her, she said. When she was done with one, another was waiting to take his or her place under the dim surgical lights in the abandoned building.
A gift more than sight
At the end of two days, Barrall said she’d operated on 25 different patients.
“They have given me a lot to think about,” she said. “Here, we have trouble getting family to give their elderly a ride to their doctor’s appointments. Whereas there, they carry them for miles.
“Yet, they gave us scarves to thank us,” she added. “They didn’t need to. I feel like I needed to thank them. I feel like I was the one given the gift.”
With increasing numbers of aging people in the world, the World Health Organization estimates that the number of people suffering from blindness could reach 75 million by 2020. It is imperative to help organizations like the Himalayan Cataract Project, Barrall said.
“Think of what $20 will buy you. It’s a few lattes, a pedicure, a decent dinner out or a movie,” she said. “A contribution of only $20 will restore someone’s sight.
“Not only will $20 literally change someone’s life, but the restoration of sight allows them to become self-sufficient again — to farm, gather food, and care for themselves and their family. Once you know that $20 will change someone’s life, how can you not give?”
How to help
Learn more about the Himalayan Cataract Project at www.cureblindness.org/help/donate.
Reach Reporter Chantelle Lusebrink at 392-6434, ext. 241, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment on this story at www.issaquahpress.com.