According to National Institute of Health and a National Geographic Survey in September 2016, 285 million people suffer from blindness worldwide. Out of those, ninety percent of the cases are in developing countries. Forty-three percent is completely and easily preventable. Preventable blindness consists of refractive errors and cataracts in the eye. Visual impairment due to preventable blindness is a life changing event for a child and/or elderly person that are not covered by government or personal insurance. They simply do not have the means to pay for these simple procedures. Niles Rotary club and its lead volunteer, Geeta Kadambi, conducted a pilot project for Niles Rotary in Chennai, India in conjunction with the South Madras Rotary club in January of 2017. Sankara Nethralaya Eye Hospital was chosen to provide the treatment and eye care for the international project. Sankara Nethralaya Eye Hospital is a premier facility providing treatments such as eye check-ups, glasses and cataract surgery while using their mobile van to reach those in rural areas. The mobile eye clinic vans are equipped with lens grinding and glass making equipment for refractive error correction on the spot. Patient’s eyes are first checked for vision impairment and if correctable by providing prescription glasses, lenses are made the same day. If the checkup suggests the presence of cataract in the eye, then the patient is taken to the surgery clinic at the main hospital in Chennai. Shuttled to Chennai by bus, all their costs are covered. This includes their boarding, lodging, and post-operative care. The level of trust a villager must have is substantial considering the cost covered is only for the individual. No family members accompany them on the medical trip. They go it alone.
Geeta Kadambi, of Niles Rotary, first found interest in doing this project when she did her graduate work at the University of Madras (1989) and collaborated with Sankara Nethralaya Eye Hospital as she researched on preventing cataracts. At that time, she was not involved with Rotary. But this had remained in the back of her mind for all these years even as she completed her post doctoral work at the University of Minnesota (1992) also doing research on preventing cataracts. Fast forward some time, Geeta joined Niles Rotary of Fremont in 2015 and her passion for helping others found a new path involving others in the good work of helping these people in India. Previously, she had been involved for many years. Her family was familiar with receiving phone calls annually and being asked to make some donations to support this worthy cause. Now, with more public and community exposure through Rotary, her plans are becoming bigger and this is just the beginning. This was her pilot project for what she hopes to turn into something much larger, perhaps on a Rotary District Level or even something Rotary can take on as an organization in whole. Even as the as a fledgling first project, it was very successful. Audrey Kearns, Niles Rotary’s International Chair, supported Geeta from the get go by helping organize fundraisers and being supportive in helping Niles Rotary get behind this wonderful project. Niles Rotarians got behind Geeta and what she was planning to do.
Typically, these Eye Bus clinics travel up to 125 kilometers per day to reach rural villagers. Without this service, these villagers who work in the fields or fishermen on the water daily, would never receive eye care of any sort. And with a simple free exam, glasses and surgery if necessary, someone who is dependent on the family can return to being a productive member of the family and society. It’s simply life changing. This leads to a life where the person served contributes economically, feels better about themselves individually by being able to contribute. This brings a sense of dignity at any age. Everyone understands how important it is to have some measure of independence. But, its not just the elderly that are served in these clinics. The ages vary across the board from small children to the aged. The following photo is one where a small three year old child had been injured while “climbing on things” and injured his eye and the left side of his face. His eye was bleeding but he had not yet lost sight when he arrived. The eye ball was fully ruptured. Even as he came to the clinic, he was happy and smiling. If he had not been seen quickly, he would have permanently lost sight in this eye for the rest of his life. Take a moment to imagine the change just this one surgery is going to have on this child. Look at his photo. How many years and life experiences just changed for the better from this one day’s events?
For each international project a US Rotary Club selects, they need to have a relationship with a local Rotary club in the country where the international project is being conducted. There are multiple reasons why. Rotarians pay their own airfare, lodging and travel expenses so that all the funds raised goes directly toward the project. The reason Rotary International has a policy where you must coordinate with a local Rotary clubs is to make sure the funds are spent properly and wisely in the given country. They are the locals, they have good contacts and are wise as to costs, business customs and local culture. The club hosting the US club is also responsible for contributing money themselves and being involved in the actual work project itself. The South Madras Rotary Club contributed $2,000 toward the project bringing the total between the two clubs to $7,700 USD. Rotarians make new relationships with each other in the process and accomplish some of Rotary Internationals goals – world peace, better friendships and serving humanity.
In rural eye camps, people will line up for hours on end and patiently wait to be seen. People will travel from miles around when they know this organization is visiting their village. This eye hospital has been in existence for over thirty-eight years, so one of the most important considerations is that the local villagers trust this organization and what they do. In fact, local village elders will print flyers and walk home to home to advise their community members that the eye clinic is coming.
Below, you can see that the hospital must deal with situations where performing eye exams can be difficult due to the lack of adequate facilities. The staffs are well trained and have a positive attitude. They set up “camp” within about 20 minutes and start seeing patients all day long. This usually varies from 100 to 200 patients per day from 9am to 4pm. Imagine that many people coming through your eye doctor’s office in one day.
One distinctive quality of the villagers in Agaram is that they are positive people and very gentle in nature. These hard working people work in the elements every day and have substantial sun exposure to their eyes and bodies. It’s so different from the pushy crowds of the big cities. They have no sense of entitlement and patiently wait their turn, knowing they will be taken care of before the days end. Working with the villagers in Agaram was a joy and this is type of people that benefit from projects such as these.
During this specific trip, the contributions of Niles Rotary and the South Madras Rotary Club of $7,700 allowed Geeta and the Sankara Nethralaya Eye Hospital to serve 338 patients overall and of those patients, 93 received cataract surgeries where they were transported to Chennai for a three day visit. The cost for each individual eye exam only runs at $5/person. This includes staff costs, transportation of the clinic, examination fees and production of glasses when needed. For the cataract surgery, the cost is $65/person which includes transportation to and from the hospital, surgery costs, recovery, boarding and lodging and any post operative medical care needed.
In summary, Geeta Kadambi was humbled and moved by the experience she had in involving Niles Rotary, the South Madras Rotary Club and the people that were served by this project. This is how it goes. Being a Rotarian means giving a little time, giving a little money, giving a little of yourself and on occasion taking on a project that alters the lives of those in different places around the world. You can see the pure joy on Geeta’s face here in the last photo as she is serving her friends and fellow human beings in India. This photo was captured on her last day at the eye camp. You see, as quoted by Richard D. King, being a Rotarian is an act of selfishness. Ask yourself who benefited most? Was the person being served from the village the one that gained the most? Were the members of the South Madras Rotary Club when they saw Rotarians from Fremont, California on the other side of the globe doing something selfless to help their fellow community members the ones who benefited most? Or was it Geeta, who took on a project that was quoted as saying “it changed who I am and how I view life”. Her perspective has been altered permanently. So who benefited most? Who knows. Does it matter? We do know all involved benefited greatly from this project.
Maybe you should be involved with one of our projects and see for yourself, what it means to be a Rotarian. Rotarians all agree that when returning from international projects that they didn’t really know what Rotary was all about, until they had completed in person an experience doing international service.
Article and Interview with Geeta Kadambi by Paul Andrus