ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Now to Ethiopia where recently, hundreds of blind people arrived at a remote hospital. They were hoping for a miracle, the ability to see again. For a week, the hospital compound held a campaign to remove cataracts, the world's leading cause of blindness. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports.
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: The courtyard of the Bisidimo Hospital complex outside the eastern Ethiopian city of Harar is packed with people, many of them with milky white eyes.
TEKETEL MATHIWOS: We have, like, 700, 800 patients already in the compound. And there are many more others that are appointed for tomorrow and the day after.
BEAUBIEN: Teketel Mathiwos is with the Himalayan Cataract Project, which is hosting this week-long cataract surgery campaign. People hoping to get their sight restored wait in long lines outside the hospital's operating room. Others spill out of an office where optometrists are screening the patients, checking their eyes and overall health ahead of surgery. Mathiwos says some patients may have to wait a day or two to get the free procedure.
MATHIWOS: They spend the night. So they have tents here, so they spend in the tents their nights. We give them the food to eat, and we try to take care of them as much as we can.
BEAUBIEN: Cataracts are a condition where the natural lens in a person's eye grows opaque. Surgery to repair this consists of removing the damaged lens and replacing it with a clear, plastic one.
MATT OLIVA: Saline and injections.
BEAUBIEN: In the main operating room at the hospital, Matt Oliva, an ophthalmologist from Oregon, is peering through a microscope as he makes a small incision into the eye of a patient on the table in front of him.
OLIVA: So then I make a linear opening in the bag that holds the cataract in place.
BEAUBIEN: Oliva has been a board member of the Himalayan Cataract Project for more than a decade. He regularly does mass surgical campaigns like this one in Asia and other parts of sub-Saharan Africa.
OLIVA: And the trick is to gently remove the cataract and leave the bag, which holds the lens in place, intact so I can put the new artificial plastic lens right in the exact same spot.
BEAUBIEN: This surgery took him just over four minutes. Some more complicated cases take a bit longer. Oliva, along with three local surgeons, can remove and replace as many as 300 cataracts a day. One of those surgeons, Mulu Lisanekwork, says the problem of cataracts in Africa is linked to the lack of eye doctors. She points out that there's only 110 ophthalmologists in Ethiopia or roughly one for every 1 million residents. And she says the untreated blindness contributes to poverty in her country.
MULU LISANEKWORK: Because people stop being productive when they get cataracts. Not only that, people who are productive in the family decrease their productivity because they have to take care of their blind family members.
BEAUBIEN: The next morning, the patients gather on long benches in the courtyard of the hospital. The doctors and nurses start removing bandages from the patients' eyes and checking to see how well they're healing. As Dr. Oliva pulls the gauze off Alimi Hassen's eyes, the 80-year-old leaps from the bench as if startled by an apparition.
BEAUBIEN: Hassen twirls around to take in the scene in the courtyard. As Oliva laughs, Hassen hugs the doctor. Hassen had been blind for seven years. The women next to him, their eyes still covered, begin ululating.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in foreign language).
BEAUBIEN: As more and more bandages are peeled off, family members of the patients start singing and dancing. Several patients experiment with putting one hand over one eye, then the other, checking out their restored sight. The Himalayan Cataract Project covers all the costs of this event, including paying staff, renting equipment, transporting patients back and forth to their villages, which Dr. Oliva says breaks down to just $75 per patient.
OLIVA: Seventy-five dollars, you can take someone who's blind and give them sight again - remarkably cost-effective health intervention.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHICKENS CLUCKING)
BEAUBIEN: Amina Ahmed, who's in her 60s, has just returned home from the Bisidimo Hospital after having cataracts removed from both of her eyes.
AMINA AHMED: (Through interpreter) When I went to the hospital, I couldn't see anything. Now I can see everything, and I'm very happy. I can see the faces of everybody.
BEAUBIEN: Her 2-year-old great-grandson, wearing a torn T-shirt and no pants, jumps into her lap to welcome her home.
AHMED: (Through interpreter) Initially, I could only hear his voice. I knew him through his voice. Now I can see his face, everything. And I'm very happy.
BEAUBIEN: Ahmed had been totally blind for about four years, she says. But she adds that her eyesight had been slowly failing her before that. Her family says it's been very hard to look after her in recent years. Ahmed's niece, Asha Yussuf, says they even had to keep the chickens away from her.
ASHA YUSSUF: (Through interpreter) The food that we serve her, the chickens come. They drink her tea, they eat her food. And we tell her to cover herself up and eat so that she can eat without the chickens.
BEAUBIEN: Her family members laugh about this story in part because they're relieved that they won't have to worry about her so much anymore. Ahmed's children say the cataract surgery didn't just change their mom's life, it changed the whole family's. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Harar, Ethiopia.
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