Dr. Jim Conahan and his surgical team were packing up at the end of an exhausting stretch of procedures when a grizzled, weather-beaten farmer walked …
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Dr. Jim Conahan and his surgical team were packing up at the end
of an exhausting stretch of procedures when a grizzled,
weather-beaten farmer walked in.
Conahan’s wife, Molly, looked over to him: “One more.”
The farmer had been on the road with his wife and daughter for
two days to reach the clinic in Guerrero, Mexico. He had come from
such a remote, mountainous area that he spoke a dialect unlike
traditional Spanish, and two interpreters were used to translate.
The farmer, a man in his mid-50s, had never received eye care, and
his milky white cataracts had all but blinded him. He could see
light and shapes, but little else.
Members of “Mission of Healing Eyes,” a faith-based, nonprofit
organization from Highlands Ranch, began to unpack and scavenged up
the tools necessary for one last surgery.
Early the next morning, when his eye patch was removed, the
farmer saw his daughter for the first time in several years.
With a smile on his face, Conahan, a medical and surgical
ophthalmologist at United Eye Centers in Highlands Ranch, recalls
stories in which normally subdued individuals are overcome with
emotion. A doctor whom the patients have never met restores their
sight completely free of charge. It is something many never thought
Over a 15-year period, Conahan estimates he has performed more
than 1,500 cataract procedures in third world countries. “Mission
of Healing Eyes,” a nonprofit created by Conahan, his wife and
three children, is preparing for another trip to Mexico on Oct. 17
with a crew of volunteers.
They are supplied with surgical equipment by S.E.E.
International — or Surgical Eye Expeditions — and they fly to the
village near Zihuatanejo about twice a year with large duffel bags
in tow to bring sight to hundreds of people. The team will perform
150 cataract surgeries, see 600 people and give out 3,000 pairs of
glasses in five days.
It was during a family vacation to the southern coastal Mexico
town a few years ago when Conahan took notice of a problem. It
seemed that many of the locals were suffering from bad cataracts.
He said the condition is prevalent because of a combination of
factors, including nutrition, sun exposure and lack of access to
proper care. Whatever the reason, he set about helping to correct
There are several unknowns with which the team must contend: the
potential for a power outage during surgery, leaving behind a
critical piece of equipment and, more recently, the issue of
personal safety. The Mexican government has helped secure the area
and the team has never encountered any major problems, but it is
always in the back of Conahan’s mind.
“You’re always nervous, I guess,” he said.
The team of volunteers has grown exponentially as more people
hear about the missions. Many don’t have any medical background,
and some are as young as 16 years old. But the experience is
rewarding, enabling anyone to get into the operating room to help
out. It’s common to have a volunteer handing surgical tools to
Conahan or running the sterilizer during an operation.
Having the chance to feel “that mountain experience” of making a
difference in someone’s life is exhilarating for those who have
never done it, he said.
Shannon Pierce, who submitted a story about her experience on
the “Mission of Healing Eyes” blog, could barely put into words how
she felt during a trip in May.
“There were so many times when I had to take a step back, fight
the tears, and silently thank God for everything I have. Seeing the
joy a simple pair of reading glasses brought to a person made me
realize how blessed my life is,” she said.
The patients they see are not always in their 70s and 80s; many
are younger with severe cases of cataracts. Conahan and the team
are only able to repair one eye at a time, and some former patients
wait in line for days for the chance to get their other eye fixed.
Those who are completely without sight are first on the list.
Patients who have had the surgery see a dramatic difference.
“It’s like covering both of your eyes with your hand. That’s
what they see (before the procedure). And after, it’s like that,
literally,” Conahan says, now covering only one eye with his
The doctor takes great pride in telling a story about a
soft-spoken man who had his eye patch removed. He was silent. They
asked him if he was OK. He nodded. They asked if he could see. He
Then, they asked if he had anything to say to Conahan, and in a
quiet voice, he asked a translator to relay a few words. The man
thanked him for being generous with the gift that God intended for
him to use. It was all Conahan needed to hear.
Their gratitude is immeasurable. Few in the village know
Conahan’s real name; the locals greet the people in scrubs with a
“Hello, Dr. House.” But one man summed up his thanks in an excerpt
from a poem he wrote for the doctor.
“Dr. Jim Conahan, I offer you my friendship. I have nothing with
which to pay you, I only ask that God bless you,” it says.
Bestowing a gift to those who would have never had the
opportunity to see again is fulfilling in itself, and Conahan
doesn’t foresee an end to the expeditions anytime soon.
Need more info?
To read more blog entries from volunteers or to sign up for an
upcoming mission to Mexico, visit www.healingeyes.webs.com.
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