Surgeries restore vision and lives

October 19, 2017
83 Salvadorans have their lives back--thanks to eye surgery mission

This harvest season is completely different for Fulgencio de Jesús Pineda Alvarenga.

For the first time in 25 years, the 50-year-old Salvadoran will happily be able to go back to work in the fields to earn money to support his family—thanks to surgeons who restored his eyesight earlier this year.

And for Berta del Carmen Perdomo Garcia, a 64-year-old who had been nearly blind just six months before surgery. She is overjoyed to regain her independence. She is now able to make tortillas and care for her family every day.

The same goes for Rosa Elena Aguilar Pineda, who saw the face of her 6-year-old grandson for the first time this summer. It had been more than 20 years since the 69-year-old was able to see clearly.

Alvarenga, Pineda and Garcia were among the 83 people in El Salvador to receive cataract surgery earlier this summer as part of the PazSalud annual mission, an outreach program of PeaceHealth.

PazSalud Missions since 2000

Since 2000, volunteers with PazSalud, which is Spanish for PeaceHealth, have been providing cataract surgeries for those who couldn’t otherwise afford it.

According to Darren Streff, the in-country coordinator, cataract surgery is commonplace in the U.S. Many Americans have the procedure well before their vision is affected. But in El Salvador, the surgery is a luxury.

“It’s common for a public hospital to suspend eye care services for years, leaving patients who need the surgery to pay roughly $1,000 for it in a private clinic,” he said. “Many of our patients earn $5 to $7 a day so cataract surgery is well out of their reach.”

Medical care is free in El Salvador, but many hospitals do not have the resources to offer cataract surgeries on a regular basis, according to Streff.

Seeing struggles firsthand sharpens perspective

Rachel Bengtson, one of the 10 PeaceHealth volunteers on this year’s mission said, “You think about some of the people who can’t even afford to get on the bus to go to the hospital. Or, they could be waiting for days to get healthcare at all.”

Seeing firsthand the struggles that people in El Salvador face gave Bengtson and other members of the volunteer mission team a whole new perspective. Bengtson, a sterile processing technician at PeaceHealth Sacred Heart Medical Center–RiverBend in Springfield, Oregon, said that being on the medical mission changed her life. “Just knowing what I experienced, I am even more passionate about patient care now.”

Unlike in the U.S., Streff noted that the mission’s Salvadoran patients often have cataracts for years or even decades, which means the eye’s lenses have become large, hard and the color of coffee. It means near or total blindness.

Salvadoran culture is very family-oriented, so few people live alone and most have others to help them. Still, it can be a worrisome proposition for patients to rely too heavily on others for their everyday needs.

Cataracts severely limit lives

While cataracts aren’t life-threatening in and of themselves, these patients’ quality of life suffers severely in myriad ways including the ability to work, drive and even walk. They might see barely well enough to accomplish modest household chores or even basic personal tasks such as dressing or bathing.

On the day of Garcia’s surgery, the PazSalud team noticed some other health concerns so they decided then to remove both cataracts for her.

Given the mission’s limited resources and time, PazSalud’s standard practice is to operate on only one eye—even if a patient has cataracts in both. Streff said patients can usually resume a normal life with one good post-surgery eye, so the policy is meant to benefit as many people as possible.

The mission will make exceptions. For Garcia, the team felt that operating on both eyes was essential to improve her overall health situation.

Surgeries answer years of prayer

And thanks to the surgeries, she is doing much better. With 20/50 eyesight now, Garcia felt empowered to make life-enhancing changes. Her activity level is back to normal. She’s delighted to see the faces of her children again and said, “being given the gift of sight is like being reborn.”

For Pineda, the operation was an answer to years of prayer. Prayer was “one of the few things she could do unassisted,” said Streff. She now sees clearly and is excited to be an active member of her household.

Alvarenga feels the same. He just had trouble saying it.

When asked for his thoughts on PazSalud, his eyes filled with tears…too overwhelmed with gratitude to speak.

His sister and mother stepped in to help answer. They said that in the past, the cataracts had made his face appear blank…“as if he didn’t have any life in his eyes.”

Now with 20/30 vision, his life is back…and it shows.