UNMC team works to cure blindness in developing countries

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June 1st, 2012

Cap-Haitien, Haiti – Forty-five million people worldwide are blind. Most live in developing countries, and most could be cured. This is where we pick up the story of a Nebraska eye doctor, a University of Nebraska Medical Center program and their work in Haiti.

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Haiti is a place ravaged by natural disasters, turmoil and poverty; the poorest country in the Americas. Two-thirds of the people who live here don’t have a formal job. Many get by eating what they grow and selling what they have left.

Renaud JeanLouis. (Photo by Ray Meints, NET News)

Such is the life of Renaud JeanLouis. He lives in a rural village outside Cap-Haitien, one of the largest cities in Haiti. He’s a lanky, greying 63-year-old, with a wife and 15 children. Most of the children still live in their house, which has three rooms, concrete walls and a corrugated metal roof. Next to the house he used to grow beans and bananas. Through an interpreter, JeanLouis explained that because of poor vision, he can no longer handle farm work.

“He says he has difficulty seeing, a lot of blurred vision as well as a lot of water discharge each morning as he wakes up,” the interpreter explained. “He says that he can’t see very well far away and outside of that, pain.”

Eye exams in a village church outside Cap-Haitien Photo by Ray Meints, NET News)

In his right eye, JeanLouis has an advanced cataract, a cloudiness of the lens inside the eye. It’s something that often develops with time and is easily treated in the United States. But it’s the leading cause of blindness worldwide because care isn’t readily available or affordable in places like Haiti.

Mike Feilmeier first met JeanLouis in an outdoor church, basically cloth tarps hung over wood poles covering a dirt floor. On this day it doubled as a make-shift eye clinic, with dozens of people of all ages sitting on dusty benches. They’re waiting to see Feilmeier or another member of his six-person University of Nebraska Medical Center team. It’s early in the team’s eight day trip to Haiti so they’ve set up a triage system, deciding which patients they will treat later.

Feilmeier is an ophthalmologist who heads UNMC’s International Division of Ophthalmology. He’s worked in India, Ghana, the Dominican Republic and Nepal, in addition to multiple trips to Haiti. He’s a 33-year-old Elkhorn native with an ambitious passion; curing blindness in the developing world.

Waiting room at the eye clinic at Justin Hospital. (Photo by Ray Meints, NET News)

“We do that by traveling abroad to actually do the surgeries, (and) by inviting physicians over to help train them in terms of new surgical techniques,” Feilmeier said. “We also partner with other organizations, universities and non-profits to help develop a sustainable infrastructure that will allow the physicians from these developing world places to better care for their patients.”

Feilmeier was still in medical school when he became aware of eye care programs in developing countries. One month in Nepal and he was hooked.

“That was when I really witnessed what I think is one of the most miraculous things in medicine and that’s cataract surgery for people who are bilaterally blind (blind in both eyes),” Feilmeier said. “It’s a surgery that can be done in five minutes. For $20, you can give someone the gift of sight. When you see that, it’s the most amazing transformation that I had ever seen.”

Feilmeier operated on JeanLouis in an eye care clinic that’s part of Justin Hospital in Cap-Haitien. The operating room is clean, modern and a little cramped, with two surgeries happening simultaneously and Feilmeier’s team working side-by-side with Haitian doctors who are assisting, and learning. Feilmeier removes the cataract, puts in a new lens, and the procedure is over in about 20 minutes.

“The cataract, it was very dense,” Feilmeier said while finishing the procedure. “But the surgery itself wasn’t too bad. He is one of those patients who stands to gain a whole lot in terms of ability to function in his life. He should have a pretty speedy recovery so I think he’ll do quite well, even tomorrow.”

JeanLouis spent a short time in the clinic recovery room, sharing space with other patients waiting for surgery. The next day he came back, and Feilmeier removed a patch covering the surgery. A simple smile told doctors the surgery was successful.

Renaud JeanLouis after is cataract surgery. (Photo by Ray Meints, NET News)

For doctors, this reaction is the payment. The treatment is free for patients, covered by funds the program raises to cover the costs of these medical missions, and Feilmeier and his team are volunteering the time they’re spending away from their paying jobs and practices. During this week in Haiti, they’d handle approximately 125 of these cataract surgeries, in addition to other procedures, examinations and things like fitting people with glasses. They’d also help local doctors who are trying to set up their own clinics. Feilmeier said the work is worth the reward.

“People are smiling and laughing and crying and hugging and seeing things that they haven’t seen in 10 or maybe even 20 years,” he said. “Sometimes that’s their children or their grandchildren or even just their surroundings, their house. Watching that left me forever inspired.”

A team from UNMC’s International Division of Ophthalmology will make another trip to Haiti in three or four months. In the future, Feilmeier anticipates sending at least three teams to Haiti each year.

Editorial note: NET News senior producer-reporter Mike Tobias wrote and produced this story with reporting from NET senior videographer-editor Ray Meints, who accompanied Mike Feilmeier and his UNMC team to Haiti in May 2012.

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