In Sitapur, India, a surgeon from Suresh Chandra's team performed a 20-minute, $25 cataract surgery on a man who was blind in both eyes. By removing the cloudy lenses that covered his eyes, Chandra's team gave this man sight.
Through a translator, a member of Chandra’s team asked what the first thing the man was going to do after he could see. This man, with a long white beard, who was from a small village, held his hand two feet from the floor. “I have a grandchild. I have never seen their face,” Chandra remembers him saying.
Chandra joined the UW School of Medicine and Public Health’s (SMPH) Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences faculty in 1974, and he is now professor emeritus. Combat Blindness International (CBI), the organization Chandra started in Madison in 1984, has screened more than 2.2 million people and supported more than 360,000 similar surgeries worldwide. Cataract accounts for more than 50 percent of the world’s blindness.
In those moments, Chandra explains, “You are just frozen in time, and you think my gosh, this is really worth it.”
In 2019, CBI celebrates 35 years of eliminating preventable blindness. In addition to the 20,000 cataract surgeries annually, the nonprofit screens nearly 80,000 children every year.
Though CBI is active across the globe, much of its work also benefits the Madison community. Every other month, CBI works with SMPH’s ophthalmology department and Madison’s Access Community Health Centers to perform eye screenings in a free clinic. In celebration of World Sight Day this October, CBI will participate in the annual Right to Sight Clinic, a free eye-care clinic that treats upwards of 80 patients.
In addition to participating in free clinics, CBI screens all four- and five-year-old kindergarten students in the Madison Metropolitan School District. “We know if we can screen for eyeglasses or diseases before the age of five or six, they will be ok,” says Chandra. “But if not, blindness can become permanent.”
The organization has expanded to India, Botswana, Paraguay, and 15 other countries. Globally, CBI also trains health care professionals in addition to supporting pediatric eye-care screenings and cataract surgery.
Treating patients with cataract is the most cost-effective medical treatment, says Reena Chandra Rajpal, CBI’s executive director and also Chandra’s daughter. “That person will make 1,500 percent of that $25 within a year in income” after the surgery allows them to return to work, she says. “There is a huge economic impact.”
In June 2019, CBI eliminated a 6,000-person backlog of cataract surgery in Botswana. CBI is currently working with Fundación Visión in Paraguay to screen every child in the entire country.
In addition to eliminating preventable blindness, the third leg of CBI’s focus addresses one of the largest problems in providing eye care — lack of qualified personnel. The Certified Ophthalmology Personnel Program trains women in India as health care professionals. The students are trained in ophthalmic trades such as nursing assistant, vision technician, ophthalmic counsellor, and optical dispenser.
In India, there is one ophthalmologist for every 100,000 people. The program simultaneously address the lack of physicians and gender inequality in the countries CBI serves, according to their website.
Chandra and Rajpal hope CBI expands to more countries, doubles the number of surgeries performed, and creates long-term solutions in the countries they serve.
But, they say, they never forget where everything started.
“It’s important for people to know we started right here in Madison,” says Chandra.