Cataracts, the clouding of the lens in the eyes often develop slowly – but they are the leading cause of blindness in Cambodia. For over a decade, the Khmer Sight Foundation has been doing everything it can to treat and prevent cataracts among Cambodians. Taing Rinith profiles the women in the foundation who work relentlessly to save eyes and change lives.
Already suffering from acute diseases, including diabetes and hypertension, Cheam Sreang lost her ability to sit straight and walk properly due to an accident a few years ago. When the doctor told her that she had cortical cataracts in both eyes, the 68-year-old Kampong Cham resident did not do anything but prepared herself for blindness because her family could not afford surgery at a private clinic in Phnom Penh, which would cause more than a thousand dollars.
Fortunately her new hope came when Sreang learned from one of her children, an active Facebook user, that a non-profit organisation was providing lens replacement surgeries for poor people at University of Puthisastra’s medical school. Although she was somehow afraid, Sreang finally bit the bullet and agreed to surgery.
“I heard people saying that a cataract surgery causes a lot of pain, and that I could not work for a long time after receiving one,” said Sreang. “But, I was told that Khmer Sight Foundation invites surgeons from modern countries, so I thought they could do a better job.”
She arrived at the university’s compound very early in the morning and was thankful for that because she did not have to wait long for her turn. Soon the crowd built up and there were at least two hundred people there later in the day. Most of them were older than 40 and like Sreang had cataracts or some other eye problems.
Sitting next to Sreang on her right was a taxi driver from Poi Pet who had been too busy with his job to go for surgery to remove his cataract. Although he could not see with his left eye, he was still driving a taxi-cab. On her left was an 80-year-old man who was confused and trembling because he had lost his sight and hearing.
Sreang was examined by the volunteers, most of whom are medical students, with modern equipment. After the initial examination, one of the doctors decided that Sreang needed a lens replacement surgery. She was sent to the next room to be prepared for the operation.
During the waiting, Sreang was praying to Buddha, asking him to protect her from all kinds of pain and evil. However, he found out later, after the operation, that it was not painful at all, thanks to anesthesia, modern equipment and highly skilled surgeons.
“I am so happy I can see clearly again,” Sreang said, smiling. “I have to wear sunglasses, but they (the volunteers) told me that I can read and work as usual.”
“I do not have anything to give back to this organisation but my thanks, and I am going to spread the word about how they have helped me and other people with cataracts.”
The surgeon who performed the operation on Sreang was Dr Vienne Tai from the Malaysia-based Vista Eye Specialist. Dr Tai came to Cambodia with her husband under the auspices of the Ci Guang Foundation.
“When I was studying at secondary school, I already had a dream of going overseas to help people,” she said. “My dream has come true, and when I saw my patients waiting outside, I knew I help could them with my medical skills.”
The first thing Sreang did after the surgery was to hug Debbie Walsh, the friendly and kind clinical manager of Khmer Sight Foundation, who was helping volunteers examine other patients. Walsh, who speaks Khmer quite well, describes this as “the best part of my job”.
Hailing from Minnesota in the US, Debbie first came to Cambodia in 2007 for a humanitarian mission. After two weeks of travelling all over the country, she fell in love with the “beautiful Cambodian people” and wanted to stay here and help them. One year ago, she volunteered with Khmer Sight Foundation in a large field mission and decided to stay with them.
“I am a nurse and I help people, so if you are helping people to see again, count me in,” said Walsh. “I get so many hugs, and I love the hugs! A grandma squeezed me and she wouldn’t let go to show me her thanks.”
“Another little grandma in one of the previous mission told me that when she first came to us, she could only hear the birds on the trees, but today she was so excited because she could actually see the birds in the trees. This is the reason why we are doing what we are doing.”
Often, Walsh has to go to provinces for pre-screening missions to seek and identify people with cataracts. She says bringing them to Phnom Penh for surgeries is the hardest part of her job.
“We can give them free rides on buses and tell them there are good surgeons from around the world to perform operations, but they gave millions of excuses.
“Some say they do not have money, and some others say they are busy. Some are even afraid we would trick them and sell them into slavery in Thailand!”
Another big challenge, Walsh said, is the lack of a permanent facility since it is very expensive to build an eye hospital.
However, according to Khmer Sight founder Sean Ngu, the University of Puthisastra and Khmer Sight have reached an agreement in which the university provides two laboratories for the NGO’s monthly mission in Phnom Penh in exchange for it training UP’s medical students.
Established in 2007, Khmer Sight Foundation supports volunteer surgeons to provide free eye surgeries, check-ups and treatment for the poor and communities in remote parts of Cambodia. Ngu said the foundation’s mission is to carry out at least 10,000 surgeries a year.
“Nonetheless, four times that amount are needed every year. Everywhere you go in Cambodia, you can find people with cataracts because of the climate and the sun,” said Ngu. It’s well known that exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun can cause skin damage. But many studies show that UV light can also increase the risk of cataract and other eye conditions.
“We have invited doctors from developed countries, such as Australia and European countries to help out. Yet, we are still in need of donations so that we can pay for more modern equipment and transportation to take people from the provinces to Phnom Penh for surgeries.”
Ngu also called out for more volunteers to help Khmer Sight carry out their missions. One need not be medical doctors or students to volunteer since there would be many things they could do to help, he added.
Siv Sothida, a 22-year-old student at the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the Institute of Technology of Cambodia, helps with translation and registration at Khmer Sight’s missions. Her job can be difficult since some of the patients, due to their age, can’t hear too well and can be cranky.
But like other Khmer Sight volunteers, she loves what she does.
“This is my third time volunteering with Khmer Sight,” said Sothida.
“I am doing what I can to help my people. Whoever you are, you can always work with us. Together, let’s bring back sight to the Cambodian people!”