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SEE International Doctors from U.S., India Join Forces to Restore Sight in Peruvian Town

SEE International is excited to welcome back Dr. Julius Shulman of New York, N.Y., from a successful surgical mission to treat blindness in Pichari, Peru.

Every year since 2007, Dr. Shulman has generously volunteered his time, money and skills with SEE International, a nonprofit organization dedicated to eradicating preventable blindness worldwide. His travels with SEE have taken him all over the world, performing cataract and other sight-restoring surgeries to isolated and underserved populations. These expeditions give doctors a chance to not only help change the world one surgery at a time, but to also learn from their fellow surgeons’ techniques and expertise.

This year, from March 29 through April 6, Dr. Shulman traveled to Pichari, a rural town of 40,000 residents, on an expedition that was coordinated with Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity (VOSH). Accompanying him was Dr. Janak Shah from Mumbai, India. While both doctors had worked together on previous SEE expeditions, they nevertheless found in this trip a valuable opportunity to learn from one another.

Pichari has gained a degree of international notoriety as the coca-growing capital of the world. It has also been a battleground between the Peruvian military and the Marxist guerrilla group Shining Path since the 1980s. These facts did not deter Dr. Shulman, however.

“I knew I would be working off of the army base there, so I would be pretty safe,” he says. “Willie Sutton said he robbed banks because ‘that’s where the money was.’ I went to Pichari because that’s where they needed help the most.”

Traveling to Pichari was not as simple as buying a plane ticket, however. After flying into Lima, Shulman and Shah transferred onto an army cargo plane, then got onto a cargo helicopter, which flew them to Pichari. Here they met with Dr. Arevolo, the Peruvian host doctor, as well as an army surgeon, bringing their team to four. They operated from 8 a.m. until as late as 10 p.m. for the entire week. Shulman focused on patients with pterygium, a benign growth on the eye that can obstruct vision, while the other doctors removed catarcats. The team worked together impressively, particularly since Dr. Shah does not speak Spanish and Dr. Arevolo does not speak English. Both doctors had worked together many times in the past, however, and were able to cooperate effectively.

In total, the team restored sight to 50 pterygium patients and 50 cataract patients. In terms of demographics, most of the pterygium patients were in the age range of 20 to 40 years old, while most cataract patients were in their 50s to 70s. One man in his 30s had been blind in one eye from pterygium for over a decade. Using standard U.S. procedures, Shulman could only restore part of the man’s eyesight. When Dr. Shah offered to try his hand, however, he used a freehand, aggressive technique that is more common in India. Between the two doctors’ different approaches, they were able to restore most of the patient’s eyesight.

“When the patch came off the next day, he couldn't stop smiling," Shulman recounts. "He kept covering his 'good eye' and exclaiming that the vision in his 'bad eye' was almost as good!"

Without his eyesight, this young man's ability to work and support his family was called into question; now he could be a productive member of society, instead of a burden on his community.

“I definitely feel that we changed people’s lives for the better,” Dr. Shulman reflects.

Without his team’s hard work and skills, a hundred people would still be blind from treatable conditions. Now, because of the doctors’ generous donation of time and money, their patients will be able to contribute to their families and communities once again.

“It isn’t easy work, and the hours are long,” Shulman said. “But it’s a great way to help change the world a little bit at a time.”

— Stephen Bunnell is the communications coordinator for SEE International.

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