Charitable ophthalmic work

Cataracts are the most common cause of blindness in the world. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimate that at least a 150 million people are blind from cataracts with a further 50 million severely visually impaired.

In the developed world, cataract surgery is performed as soon as there is an impact on patients’ quality of life but in the developing world, there are very few ophthalmic surgeons who are able to carry out the necessary surgery. It is amazing that a procedure that can be performed in less than 20 minutes is all that is required to reverse blindness and change peoples’ lives.

Charity work abroad

Mr Mearza has a strong interest in charitable ophthalmic work and has been on numerous trips abroad helping some of the world’s most needy people see again.

His interest in charitable work began in 2001 with a visit to India. This was followed by subsequent trips to Bali, Burma, Madagascar, Bangladesh and Ghana restoring sight to patients afflicted with cataracts.

Although some of the places visited and the environments are challenging, this is offset by the huge rewards and gratitude that come with giving people their eyesight back.

Orbis The Flying Eye Hospital

The latest Flying Eye Hospital was launched in June 2016. Donated by Fed-Ex, designed by experts in aviation and medicine and brought to life by generous supporters, this amazing plane is bringing the world together to fight blindness. We were fortunate enough to get access to see it for ourselves with a VIP tour of the plane at Stanstead airport.

Eye Charity Stories

Raipur, India Feb 2001

This was my first trip abroad and seems like a long time ago now!

I went with friend and colleague Mr Jin Chan to the Chhattisgarh Eye Hospital in Raipur, deep in the Madya Pradesh district of India.

This trip was more about learning the techniques required to manage the complex and advanced cataracts that one is presented with in the developing World. It is very difficult to get this kind of training in the UK as the cataracts we manage are nowhere near as advanced.

We learnt by observing one of the best cataract surgeons in the area, Dr Vijay Mehra who guided us into becoming accomplished cataract surgeons able to deal with all manner of cataracts.

Interestingly, there was no access to gloves and we had to use alcohol spirit for sterilisation purposes hence the bare hands in the picture!

Sadly, Dr Mehra is no longer with us but I’ll never forget his wise words, kindness, hospitality and generosity. This trip gave me a firm grounding for future charity work and gave me the confidence to work in difficult environments often with sub-standard instrumentation.

Bali, Indonesia, Oct-Nov 2002

In October 2002, I was fortunate enough to be invited to the island of Bali to teach local surgeons techniques in cataract surgery, specifically how to use ultrasound technology to remove a cataract.

The trip was almost cancelled due to the Bali bombings 2 weeks prior but I decided to go ahead in any case and I’m glad I did.

The hospitality was second to none, the island was beautiful and I shared my expertise with the local surgeons which was greatly appreciated.

Whilst I was there, I was asked to see an elephant with an eye problem. As the elephant was in an elephant park sanctuary high up in the hills, I was flown up in a helicopter and given a tour of the island en route.

The elephant turned out to have a cataract and subsequently went on to have successful cataract surgery- definitely a highlight of the trip!

Burma, April 2004 and Jan 2005

Both trips to Burma, now formally known as Myanmar were unique experiences. Burma spends the least amount on healthcare compared to all other nations which explains the huge problem they have with cataract induced blindness and other medical conditions.

As well as performing surgery, we managed to see some of the local sights including the ancient city of Bagan.

The whole experience was amazing and as always on these trips, it was great to mingle with the local populace and experience their hospitality and culture. One of the highlights of the trip was participating in a football game organised by the locals not to mention the food which was always very good!

Madagascar, 2007

In 2007, we had the pleasure of visiting the island of Madagascar, the fourth largest island in the World.

The population comprises almost 22 million people, 90% of which live on less than $2 a day making the country one of the poorest in Africa with very limited access to education and healthcare.

Our remit was to teach the local surgeons new techniques in relation to cataract surgery, specifically the use of ultrasound technology which is the norm in the developed World but not widely practiced in countries like Madagascar.

We took a large number of instruments and equipment and we spent just over a week performing and teaching surgery.

Madagascar is renowned for its wildlife and plant species with almost all unique to the Island. We did manage to find some time to visit some of the local wildlife sanctuaries and the lemurs were certainly a highlight as well as our trip to the tiny adjacent island of Reunion.

Whale watching in the Indian Ocean was also an experience I’ll never forget!

Bangladesh, 2008

The two week trip to Bangladesh organized by the Impact Foundation was one of the most productive in terms of numbers of cases performed.

Approximately 16 million people in Bangladesh have a disability and many live in the countryside without access to modern health care facilities. The Jibon Tari Floating Hospital uses the rivers of Bangladesh to access these people, and perform about 3000 surgical interventions each year with more than 25 000 outpatient treatments. Since its start-up in 1999, more than 400 000 patients have been treated in 26 different locations in Bangladesh.

We spent our first week in Bangladesh on the Jibon Tari Floating Hospital. Pre-screened patients would board the boat and their cataract surgery would be performed. Once they had recovered, they would then disembark and be returned to their local villages. The boat was also our home for the first week and we would have all our meals on board and sleep in the cabins.

Our second week was spent in Chuadanga which could only be accessed by amphibian plane- quite an experience! Here we performed just over 100 cataract procedures and again was a highly efficient set up.

The trip to Bangladesh was extremely rewarding, the food was great and people warm and welcoming. The experience was unique in that it was the first time we had operated on a boat as well as the first time in an amphibian plane.

Ghana, 2009 & 2011

In 2009 and 2011, along with a large group of volunteer surgeons and nurses, we helped restore the sight of over 300 patients affected by cataracts in the Ho and Saltpond regions of Ghana.

The trip was organized by “Touch of Light”, a charity set up by sister Cathy Asante who worked at the Western Eye Hospital in London. From Ghana herself, she knew only too well the plight of the Ghanian people in relation to eye care and was determined to do something about it.

The estimated population of Ghana is 23 million and more than 7.4 million are afflicted with sight threatening diseases. Cataract and refractive errors accounts for at least 50% of treatable blindness in Ghana.

The aim of the trips was to deliver free specialist eye care to all those who were in dire need, as well as train local doctors, nurses and healthcare volunteers for future needs.

Both trips were very rewarding and the team atmosphere and morale amongst all staff kept us motivated and enthusiastic. The Ghanians were extremely hospitable and organized some local sight seeing experiences during our downtime.

One of the more memorable experiences was a visit to Cape Coast Castle where 10’s of millions of Africans were shipped off to the then “Free World” as part of the slave trade. The museum that remains is a testament to the unimaginable hardship endured by the people at the time as well as a reminder of one of the darkest periods in World History.

Interestingly, President Obama had visited Cape Coast with his family just a few weeks before our trip in 2009 and there was a real buzz in the air amongst the locals as they never envisaged an African American becoming President of the United States let alone taking time out to visit their country.

We were all glad we could make a small but significant contribution to help the wonderful people of Ghana.

Ali’s role in supporting Orbis and other Eye Charities

Ali has been a volunteer surgeon for over 15 years travelling to various countries including Bali, Madagascar, Ghana, India and Bangladesh to teach and train local surgeons as well as treat patients that would otherwise be blind from their eye condition – something that seems inconceivable in today’s world. Ali has registered his interest to work with Orbis both as a volunteer surgeon as well as an ongoing collaboration with Vision Correction London.

Ali has recently returned from Cambodia where he travelled with a team of surgeons, nurses and support staff organised by the Khmer Sight Foundation, a charity set up to help patients who are blinded by cataracts as well as other sight threatening conditions. He and the team felt privileged that they were able to make a difference to the lives of those they had the opportunity to treat.

He plans to travel again in 2018 to offer his time and expertise to help others.

“Giving people back their sight back is one of the most rewarding aspects of my job. It’s incredibly humbling and truly an honour to be involved in this kind of work,” – Ali Mearza