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<p>Michael Amendolia</p>

Michael Amendolia

Dr Sanduk Ruit’s techniques have restored the sight of up to 100,000 people across Nepal.

The Man With 200,000 Eyes

A Nepalese doctor and some cheap but revolutionary cataract surgery have given sight to a hundred thousand blind people in some of the world’s poorest countries.

CHAMELI DEVIS and her family are poor — dirt poor.

Their bamboo and straw hut sits among her Nepalese village of Kalaiya, where the family ekes out a meagre existence working at nearby padi fields.

Chameli is deaf and dumb, and even her mother Janaki can only estimate her age at somewhere around 40. The family’s situation grew more desperate just over a year ago, when Chameli’s worsening cataract condition finally rendered her blind and unable to work.

Her predicament devastated her family, who like many in third world countries, rely on every member’s contribution just to exist.

Fast-forward to October this year. Chameli lies in the recovery area of the Hetauda Community Eye Hospital in Makawanpur District where her life is about to change forever. Less than 24 hours ago she and about 100 others were brought by bus from around the region to the eye hospital, where some of the world’s most modern eyecare is available to otherwise vulnerable and remote communities. In all, 1,200 people have been examined over the past three days, and 247 cataract operations have been completed.

FOR ALMOST TWO DECADES Dr Sanduk Ruit and his medical team from Kathmandu’s Tilganga Institute of Ophthalmology have been bringing inexpensive sight-saving methods closer to the regional communities where cataract blindness is epidemic.

Like 20 million other cataract sufferers around the world, Chameli suffers from a condition that is totally preventable. Cataracts — caused by a clouding of the eye lens, which blocks light to the retina — account for 51 per cent of all blindness. The process is accelerated by prolonged exposure to ultraviolet light, dehydration and poor nutrition.

The Tilganga Institute, established in 1994 with the help of Australia’s Fred Hollows Foundation, has trained and organised thousands of healthcare workers in the developing world with the aim of reaching the World Health Organisation’s goal of eliminating preventable blindness by 2020.

Ruit is a godfather figure in the treatment of preventable-blindness. The high-quality, high-volume and low-cost blindness-prevention model he started in 1992 — with the help and encouragement of his friend and mentor Hollows, and subsequent support from the foundation and from American ophthalmologist Geoff Tabin of the Himalayan Cataract Project — is being adopted by health departments internationally.

Ruit has restored sight to as many as 100,000 people across Nepal and in at least 15 other countries on four continents.

In Nepal he pioneered small-incision cataract surgery, where the cataract is removed and replaced with the new intraocular lens without any need for stitches. He also engineered the large-scale manufacturing of inexpensive lenses, which enabled hundreds of thousands of poor people in remote areas to regain their sight.

Ruit and his team at Tilganga have trained surgeons, administrators and eyecare assistants from more than 15 countries, including Tibet, China, North Korea, Rwanda, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Ghana, Butan, India, and more recently Indonesia.

CHAMELI IS IN A BIG, OPEN-AIR recovery area with other post-operative patients, waiting to be checked over by either Ruit or his ophthalmic assistants.

Ruit's face is one of the first Chameli sees when the bandages are removed from her eyes after this morning’s surgery, which took about 15 minutes per eye.

Her deafness has left her with little understanding of what has happened. Although apprehensive, she seems happy with the results as her new vision is tested in front of nearby eye charts. She clings to her mother for reassurance as she and the rest of the group listen to a counselling session about post-operative care. They are all now sporting dark plastic sunglasses to protect the eyes during recovery. Chameli is told by an ophthalmic nurse what to expect in the healing process — including the gradual improvement in her sight over the coming weeks.

Finally, Chameli and her mother are ushered onto their bus for the hour’s journey home and the start of a new life.

Michael Amendolia is a freelance photographer based in Sydney.

While working as a staff photographer for ‘The Daily Telegraph’ newspaper in 1992, he travelled to Hanoi with Professor Fred Hollows on the famous ophthalmologist’s last journey outside Australia, six months before his death. It was on this trip that Amendolia met Hollows’s friend and colleague, the Nepalese eye doctor Dr Sanduk Ruit. Over the past 20 years, Amendolia has travelled with Ruit and the Tilganga Institute of Ophthalmology to Mustang-Nepal, Tibet, North Korea, Bhutan, India and recently Indonesia. Amendolia’s work in Hetauda and his journey to Nepal for the exhibition ‘Nepal and Australia, Twenty Years of Restoring Sight’, were supported by The Fred Hollows Foundation.

12 comments on this story
by Brian Blackwell snr

Having undergone cataract operations in both eyes, and being now blessed with perfect vision, I know what this story means. Beautifully told and another example of GM's quality reporting.

November 22, 2012 @ 9:36am
by North Sullivan

An important story, beautifully told.

November 22, 2012 @ 12:02pm
by David Dare Parker

Great story, well done Michael.

November 22, 2012 @ 2:58pm
by Santosh

heart touching story....and wonderful photographs

November 22, 2012 @ 2:59pm
by Randy Larcombe

Fabulous Michael. The continuation of great project. Thanks for bringing us this story.

November 22, 2012 @ 7:23pm
by Mick Tsikas

Awesome words and images. Congrats Michael

November 22, 2012 @ 7:32pm
by Steve Marshall

Extraordinary work, beautifully documented.

November 22, 2012 @ 8:28pm
by Frances Gilham

Beautiful photography -- thanks Michael for this story.

November 23, 2012 @ 11:00am
by Irris Makler

Beautiful story!

November 23, 2012 @ 6:37pm
Show previous 9 comments

Thank you Michael, everyone of us, surgeon or not, can help eradicate avoidable blindness.

November 26, 2012 @ 2:24am
by Anis karna

Realy awesome work caried by our respected sir Dr.S. Ruit n his team

November 30, 2012 @ 1:28am
by Liz

Amazing work and what is even more amazing is the cost of the procedure. It's akin to programs like Smile Train, who repair cleft palates in poor mostly rural communities around the world. or mosquito net programs in Africa They are so simple and cost effective that even $10 can help a child (or several). Really well edited video too.

December 6, 2012 @ 4:39am
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