It is next week in Taveuni that we will celebrate the 10 year anniversary of the establishment of the Taveuni Eye Project unlike most celebrations with cake, champaign and lots of partying however my father we will celebrate by doing 350 scheduled eye surgeries with the help of two ophthalmologists he continues to train in the miraculous manual small incision cataract surgery (MSICS) technique that he has perfected and teaches! The back story, when my family and I finished a wonderful eye mission project on the island of Koro Fiji in August of 2005 we realized how much we love the people of Fiji and how many develop cataracts at ages earlier than we see in the U.S. After these kind people develop cataracts they become blind and huge burden on their family. They become a mouth with no hands. There are also children born blind in Fiji who become blind beggars as their life without sight becomes extremely hard. Typical Fijians live in villages, many without running water or electricity and do not have the money necessary to travel from their island to the main island for diagnosis and potential treatment that could take years nor do they have the money for transportation to the main island which is well over $100.00 each way with the added necessity to pay for room and board while they wait in a cue until the day their number is called. Once examined and the diagnosis made then the blind poor must return in 6 months, 1 year later, or longer for their procedure requiring another round trip ferry boat voyage and once again a week or two room and board cost. The typical Fijian does not have the money for even one of these excursions so none of them even attempt to raise the funds for transport to the main island because the process is futile and the expenses clearly out of their reach.
So our family took the 13 hour ferry ride ourselves from Koro to Taveuni and both my father and myself were severely ill with sea sickness on this “open ocean” ride with 15 foot swells. Not soon enough the ancient ferry boat, recently condemned for unsafe ocean travel, landed us on Taveuni Island where we met a New Zealander who had lived there part time for 20 years. We told him that we came there to set up an eye program to assist the disadvantaged Fijians impaired or blinded by cataracts or severe pterygium but only if there was a need to do so. He drove us around the island in one of the few vehicles stopping in different villages where my mother Linda, and sisters Molly and Amy and younger brothers Michael and David lined up patients, checked their vision with and w/o pinholes and then dilated their eyes. My father and I looked into the eyes of each Fijian to determine the cause of their impaired vision. We traveled from village to village concluding at the end of a week there most definitely a need for us to set up an eye program. We told our new local friend, Geoffrey that we would put together a surgery team and be back in 4 months to begin doing eye surgeries and helping these kind people see again. And my father did just that. On that first return visit, Geoffrey said to my father, “You came back. My father said, “I said I was coming back” He said so does everyone when they come here on vacation. They nearly all say they want to help out these nice people and they will come back and do so, but none do.” My father said now you know me. When I give you my word that I am going to do something I do it” Then my father and his team got to work. Fast forward. Now 10 years later my father has done more than 3,000 charity eye surgeries in Fiji, more than any other ophthalmologist whether it be a volunteer ophthalmologist or Fijian ophthalmologist working in Fiji full time. For him It is an honor to serve the people of Fiji and bring them hope through sight. To be blind in a developing nation is like death - it is a huge burden on family and community. It is a blessing to reach out and give others their sight back and with it the restoration of their life.” It has been an honor to serve along side my father all over the world to bring sight and life to the impoverished and disadvantaged. We have now trained many of the local Fijians to help out on these projects so that they are a needed part of our amazing team. Although we have several wonderful nurses and assistants from New Zealand we have taught a local Fijian to be a surgical assistant, and a local nurse to be an ophthalmology nurse and a 2nd to be a pre-operative nurse, and two other locals to do vision screening and others to provide food, laundry and comfort assistance to every blind and impaired patient during their 3 day stay. In addition we have volunteers helping with free transportation from 10 different islands and much more.
But here is the Rest of the Story. My father and our whole family never does my father give his name to any patient he just tells them every morning after we remove the eye patches and watch the tears of joy flow from the once blind eyes, that their sight is a gift of love and compassion to bring hope and love into their lives. Please share this love with others !
We end each mission with huge smiles and hugging our patients good bye and more God Bless You’s !
Jeff (Jeffrey Patrick Rutgard)
I arrived August 24th in Yangoon, Myanmar. It was nearly midnight and the cool temperature that had accompanied for 13 hours was replaced by a wall of humidity; a temperature of 90˚F requiring removal of the long sleeve t-shirt and sweater before I became my own shower. The hotel was 45 minutes away as the rain poured from the sky, I was afforded a quick night of sleep and was up and ready to go at 6 a.m. - I walked to the Yangoon Eye Hospital where the other members of our training team were organized. Each of the ophthalmology subspecialties were taught in a lecture format, one each day: retina, glaucoma, oculo-plastics, neuro-ophthalmology, corneal transplant - DSEK, and manual small incision cataract surgery.
Our lecture was filled with about 90-100 doctors in training. All were going to be ophthalmologists, and all were very attentive, desiring to learn anything and everything they could from each of us knowing this was a very special educational opportunity. The eager doctors’ in training filled the lecture hall to capacity. Standing room only for each lecture of the subspecialties. We engaged in a clinic speciality day where the residents and their professors brought in their most complex ocular patients for us to examine, evaluate, make recommendations and operate on. I performed 5 surgeries, teaching 5 different ophthalmic nurses and 10 doctors in training the necessary steps. The doctors had never seen a suture-less cataract surgery performed: they were in awe that rock hard cataracts could be removed with a 3- 6 mm incision without any sutures and a foldable intra-ocular lens put through this incision. All eyes were on the eye surgery and the young doctors were very excited to see such an amazing surgery that could be done in less than 10 minutes. Their smiles lit up when I said the surgery was over and they asked "please do it again, I want to learn this procedure". It was exciting to teach this most valuable of surgeries to these dedicated young doctors.
It rained nearly every day, water floating down through the thick humidity while the sun shown through, baking us in the 100 degree heat while our wet clothes appeared dry on the outside but remained soaked against our skin. The trip was filled with delightful young doctors hoping to learn, and with kind patients hoping to have their eyesight restored. It was an excellent training course.