“Enough to Fill a Large Football Stadium”

Pierre Barbeau
MSMF volunteer

I was hired as Executive Director of Help the Aged (Canada) in 1989, the same year that MSMF was established. A few years later, I met Sarma Vishnubhatla who was directing – and continues to direct – MSMF as a volunteer. I was very impressed with the eye care program in Kakinada from the very beginning but saddened by the fact that Chandra Sankurathri’s loss of his family in the 1985 Air India crash was the primary reason for the introduction of the program, which was set up in memory of his wife and two children. What a tragedy!

The primary objective of Help the Aged was to assist poor and destitute elderly persons in developing countries and the cataract removal program seemed to be the perfect match for us. At that time, many cataract surgeries in rural India were completed in “eye camps” with nurses holding flashlights while surgeons removed the cataracts. The main problem with this method was that eye infections occurred frequently. Chandra and Sarma dealt with this problem from the very beginning and spent a great deal of time and energy raising funds to build an eye care hospital in Kakinada. Their medical staff travelled to various villages with a donated bus to pick up the elderly poor who needed cataract surgery. They were transported to the hospital (Srikiran Institute of Ophthalmology) for their surgery and stayed at the hospital overnight, returning home the next day with a bottle of antibiotic eye drops.

Sarma, Chandra and I agreed to submit a three-year funding proposal to the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). When I travelled to Kakinada for the first time to draft the proposal, I was pleasantly surprised to observe that ALL cataract patients received intraocular lenses so that eyeglasses would not be necessary. During previous trips to India, I had met many elderly people who had received glasses following their cataract surgeries but I could hardly see their eyes because of all the scratches on their eyeglass lenses. Most of them were farm laborers who had accidentally dropped their glasses on stones while bending over. The lenses installed during surgery solved that problem.

Incredibly, a cataract removal at the Kakinada hospital could be completed for $35(Canadian) including the eye drops and the intraocular lens. When I returned to Ottawa with the completed proposal for 3,500 surgeries per year for a three year period, I was very hopeful that it would be approved by CIDA and that MSMF and Help the Aged could begin raising funds from our Canadian donors to support this project. CIDA grants required that we raise $1 for every $3 contributed by the government. We waited anxiously and were elated to hear that our application was approved!

This project led to 15 years of cataract surgeries sponsored by CIDA, MSMF and Help the Aged. In other words, 52,500 surgeries completed, enough to fill a large football stadium.

When I retired in 2009, I continued to volunteer on MSMF’s Board of Directors, helped with the annual picnic in Ottawa, etc. Looking back at all of the projects I was involved with during my career, this one stands out as being the most cost efficient and the most rewarding. I am very grateful for my involvement with Chandra, Sarma and so many other volunteers in Canada and India!