Sunday, July 22 , 2018, 10:39 am | Fair 72º


SEE International Sets Sights on Restoring World’s Vision

Goleta-based nonprofit enlists doctors to perform eye surgeries around the globe

In a set of small offices in western Goleta, the staff of a small nonprofit organization works to help people around the world reclaim their sight through surgeries to remove cataracts.

Surgical Eye Expeditions, or SEE, International recently held an open house at its headquarters, at 7200 Hollister Ave., to detail its global mission and offer tours of the facility.

Since its inception in 1974, SEE International has helped 360,000 people recover their sight by coordinating eye doctors with nations around the globe that typically have no access to eye care. Clinics are set up for several days, and patients are treated, mostly for cataracts. Since most of these patients lack health care or the money a surgery would require, people travel for miles for the chance to see a doctor. During the clinics, the doctors are usually able to perform dozens — and sometimes hundreds — of surgical procedures.

Doctors then screen other patients and provide post-operative eye care.

The cataract surgery usually takes only about a half-hour, but restores sight to individuals who may have suffered vision problem their whole lives.

“Ninety percent of the world’s correctable blind have no access to eye care,” SEE general manager Kim Welton told a group at the open house.

The organization was founded in 1974 by Dr. Harry Brown after the ophthalmologist worked with eye surgeons in Africa and Asia and saw the need for eye care overseas.

“He really envisioned that SEE International could be a bridge between the treatable blind and all of these skilled surgeons that are out there and really want to help and make a difference,” but who may not have the logistical support to make an expedition happen on their own, Welton said.

Today, 600 affiliates and doctors are part of the organization.

SEE is regularly invited by local ophthalmologists, medical and health authorities to organize and deploy small teams of doctors with donated supplies.

“The motivation is just heart-rending sometimes,” said Dr. William Coulter, a SEE board member who was one of the original participants. He recalled a trip during which a young man in Mexico heard that SEE was about to hold a clinic. Coulter said the young man strapped a chair on his back to carry his father to the clinic.

“He trudged through the jungle for two days to bring his dad to the clinic,” he said. He saw the young man emerge from the jungle, carrying a lantern in one hand and his father on his back, and “it was just an incredible thing to see,” he said.

“That’s the reward the opthamologists get,” Coulter said.

During the recent tour, SEE medical supplies manager Bob Griffin sat in an office chair, surrounded on all sides by medical supplies wrapped in plastic. The supplies were being packed into boxes for the doctors to use overseas.

Eye surgeon Judith Newman examines a child at a pediatric eye clinic in El Progreso, Honduras.
Eye surgeon Judith Newman examines a child at a pediatric eye clinic in El Progreso, Honduras. (SEE International photo)

Each box had a different global destination. Griffin’s was headed for a clinic to be held in a remote area of Fiji. Alcon donates individually packaged and sterilized needles, sutures and sponges for the packages.

Welton says 90 percent of the supplies are donated, including the lenses used to correct a patient’s vision after he or she has cataracts removed. In a small room packed floor to ceiling are packages of donated lenses of varying strengths. The supplies will be packaged for distance travel to remote villages.

Another room at SEE holds bulky equipment available for doctors to use on the expedition if they need it. Welton said doctors are welcome to use any equipment they want, but are required to carry it, as well as the supplies, to the clinics. The doctors also pay their own travel expenses to reach the clinics.

Although the expense and effort is great for the doctors involved, Welton said there’s no shortage of people who want to assist with the global effort. And having SEE International as a coordinating group for the trips has only increased overall involvement.

“There are so many surgeons who try to do it themselves and see how hard it is,” she said.

The nonprofit organization’s biggest need right now is funding, said Welton, adding that the group is able to offer the surgeries at $108 per eye, a cost that is funded by donations.

The group will host a conference in October to teach ophthalmologists how to use the manual, small-incision cataract method of surgery, which relies on the surgeon removing the cataract by hand, instead of using expensive equipment, a procedure common in the United States.

The hand technique, originally developed in India, allows for more people to be treated at one time, Coulter said. When having doctors working in foreign countries becomes costly, time is money. “When you travel all the way across the world, if you’ve only got time to do six operations, it’s hardly worth it,” Coulter said. “If you can get 60 done, then that’s great.”

In 2008 alone, SEE visited 37 countries and held 129 clinics, performing 10,000 surgeries.

Children or spouses of the blind are often forced to give up their lives to care for their loved ones, so when a surgery is performed, more than the patient is affected.

“You do one operation,” Coulter said, “and you’re kind of freeing two people.”

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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