Healing hands healing eyes

Posted 9/27/10

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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Healing hands healing eyes


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 possible.

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 it.

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 hand.

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 nodded.

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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