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Dr. Reeta Gurung, a highly respected cornea specialist,
Master Trainer for HCP Cure Blindness and CEO of the Tilganga Institute of Ophthalmology, is vacationing in Pokhara, Nepal. It’s 8:15 AM in Nepal, and Dr. Reeta (as her friends and colleagues know her) is immediately warm and caring. Even though on vacation, she is more than happy to spend an hour sharing stories about her life’s work: helping the blind see.
Dr. Reeta and her team are known for the “cataract camps” they host in remote Himalayan villages. At these camps, individuals with cataract blindness can be cured after one simple surgery — whether they can pay for it or not, without traveling to a hospital. One camp, held in Khunde, Nepal, was located at 4,000m (13,000 ft) above sea level.
“I was really scared because I was the only doctor. What if I couldn’t go up?” she says. “But I did.”
This vacation is well deserved.
The cataract camp in Khunde isn’t the only one held in a remote area. Dr. Reeta and HCP Cure Blindness perform cataract surgeries at four different camps, each located in isolated regions of the Tibetan Plateau. Most camps happen every two or three years. Some annually.
Nepal is home to an estimated 150,000 people with cataract blindness, a form of blindness that can be cured by surgical intervention — if you can get to a hospital. Many people, especially those living in remote Himalayan villages, cannot. The results of these camps speak for themselves. HCP Cure Blindness, a Johnson & Johnson Vision global charity partner established in 1995, has performed over 1 million sight-restoring surgeries and provided 13.1 million people with basic eye care.
While studying in Kathmandu in the early 90s, Dr. Reeta connected with Dr. Sanduk Ruit, MD, Co-founder of the Tilganga Eye Center and HCP Cure Blindness, to talk about eye care in rural Nepal. “We didn’t have emails and WhatsApp,” she says. Communication was slow, but eventually, they were able to meet in person. “At that time, we didn’t have a hospital. We had rented two small rooms downtown [to begin our work treating cataract patients in Nepal]. That’s how we started.”
Now a world-renowned training and education center for ophthalmologists in Nepal, Tilganga treats 2,500 patients on average every week. It also waives surgical fees for anyone unable to pay.
A Focus on Education
Born in 1958, Dr. Reeta had one older sister and one younger sister. Having only daughters at that time wasn’t viewed as fortunate. This negative sentiment towards families who only have daughters is “there even now, to some extent,” Dr. Reeta says.
Her father died when she was young, but her mother would always repeat his words, saying his girls would always be educated. “My father always defended that he had girls. He says that girls are as good as boys—if not better.” Dr. Reeta’s mother worked hard to ensure her girls had an education. There weren’t adequate schools in the villages, so her mother paid for a boarding school in Kathmandu. “All those things, put together, we always wanted to be somebody. Somebody who can do something good.”
If Dr. Reeta wanted to go to college, she would need to get a scholarship as her mother could not pay for it on her own. So, she studied and earned a scholarship. “It all fell into place. That was the education my mother and my father, when he was alive, thought we should get.”
When asked about how she decided to study ophthalmology, Dr. Reeta’s response is unexpected.
“Patience is not one of my virtues,” she says, laughing. But as an ophthalmologist, she elaborated, “you watch people see immediately after you perform surgery. I didn’t have to wait years and years for the results; I could see immediately how the surgery changed the life of the person I just operated on.”
Developing a Vision
In 2021 Dr. Reeta is still a practicing ophthalmologist. She’s also a CEO, philanthropist, and teacher. “Sometimes, I don’t enjoy being a CEO as much as practicing ophthalmology. But somebody had to do it, and maybe at that time, it had to be me. I put all my energy and effort into it, and I think I’m doing pretty okay.”
Dr. Reeta tells me the Tilganga Institute’s mission is simple. “If a patient is blind and the blindness can be cured, they shouldn’t be blind.” Funding is their biggest challenge, but with partners like HCP Cure Blindness and Johnson & Johnson Vision, they can “use their expertise to bring vision back to the blind.”
In 1981 the Nepal Blindness Survey “showed that 0.84% of the Nepalese population was bilaterally blind,” with cataracts being the leading cause of blindness. The Tilganga Institute officially started in 1992 to combat this epidemic. Before the early 90s, cataract surgery patients had to wear glasses that made everything 33% larger. “In Nepal, where the geographical terrain is so harsh, the people walking on those hills and mountains, you can imagine how difficult it was for the patient.” And when the glasses broke, their vision was gone. Again.
Intraocular lenses had begun to be used during surgery in other parts of the world. After the cataracts were removed, these lenses were implanted into the eye. Unfortunately, intraocular lenses can also be costly.
But almost three decades ago, founders of HCP Cure Blindness found a way to make the lenses in Nepal at a fraction of the cost of those on the world market. “That was a miracle,” Dr. Reeta says. “People didn’t think these types of surgeries would be possible in developing countries. But we did it.”
To build customers’ and investors’ faith in their products, Dr. Reeta’s team needed to ensure the lenses received the necessary quality certifications. “It wasn’t easy, but if you do things with determination and dedication, things happen.”
Since then, her work hasn’t gotten any easier. When I asked what it’s like climbing mountains to perform surgeries in remote villages, she says, “I walked for two and a half days to get there, after the flight. It was not easy. I’m 63.”
However, Dr. Reeta and her team are efficient. They always set up their camps at the lowest point possible. “Patients don’t go up, but they tend to come down.” Having camps at lower villages is easier for the patients and the doctors. Less travel also means lower elevation camps are a more efficient use of funds. “We have to carry microscopes, lenses, medicines, and generators.”
Holding cataract camps in remote villages also makes it easier for women, who are more prone to cataract blindness, to get surgeries. Women can’t often make it to the hospital, but they can make it to the camps. “They don’t have to be away from their children, from their kettles, from their households, from their chores.”
Dr. Reeta tells a story about a man who carried his father to a camp on his back. The son had so much trust in her team he was willing to carry his father on his back — because he knew they would make him see again. “In every camp, there are people like this; these people need our services. We are fulfilling our social obligations.”
Some people can go to a hospital to get the surgery done, but many, like the blind father, cannot. “Our hospital is here not only for the people who can come to the hospital or who can pay money to have the surgery done,” Dr. Reeta says. “But our hospital is established for those people who cannot otherwise come here. So, we have to go and find them.”
Once the blind father was able to see, he was able to feed himself and work again. The other members of the family were then free to work as well. “We didn’t just help that person who was blind; we helped their whole family.”
These surgeries impact more than just blind patients. People with cataract blindness, Dr. Reeta says, may be more likely to die within about 5 years. In her experience, these patients do not move or exercise. However, once the patients can see, “the family member who had to look after that patient is free from that job and can earn a living,” says Dr. Reeta. “As these family units are affected, it affects a whole community.”
The team at Tilganga has worked in many other difficult-to-reach places: Cambodia, Indonesia, Ethiopia, Ghana, and more. Dr. Reeta recognizes her work there will help some people, but in her words, “That might just be making a small dent in a big problem.”
“That isn’t going to solve the problem for good. There are also many other causes of blindness, not just cataracts. We have to be prepared to tackle those problems as well. So, institutions like ours have started giving fellowship trainings.” Dr. Reeta says. In the 1980s, there were only seven ophthalmologists in Nepal. Now, thanks to fellowship programs like these, patients with avoidable blindness have access to doctors who can help. Over the past 25+ years, HCP Cure Blindness has established four dedicated training institutes and trained over 18,000 eye care professionals (including 552 ophthalmologists) from over 43 countries.
Reflecting on a Legacy
“I’ve never regretted being in such a wonderful profession. You can make the blind person see. My work makes my life fulfilled.”
Along with being an accomplished ophthalmologist, Dr. Reeta is also a voice for gender equality in Nepal. The Tilganga Institute has 30+ ophthalmologists, most of whom are women. Dr. Reeta thinks it may be easier for women to be an ophthalmologist, “a blessing in disguise,” she says. “You can have your family intact and at the same time have your full professional life.”
When asked what has led to her success, she replied, “First and foremost, I would give credit to my mom. And the education she provided me that led me to this point.” She’s also grateful to her husband and family. “I always felt supported and never had to say I would do something tomorrow. I never had any obstacles on the family level.”
“If you work hard enough with sincerity, it is not difficult to come to this position,” Dr. Reeta says. “With hard work, sincerity, and education, anybody can succeed.”
The word sincerity seems significant. It’s a theme that’s prevalent throughout Dr. Reeta’s career and throughout our conversation. Even after she retires, Dr. Reeta and her sister plan to help underprivileged people get more access to education. She also wants to ensure girls have the same opportunities for education as young boys. “We don’t want others to go through the hard things we went through.”
Dr. Reeta will continue her work until she’s helped every individual whose blindness she is capable of alleviating. That spirit is integral to both the Tilganga Institute and HCP Cure Blindness. What started with a couple of doctors working in two rented rooms in Nepal is now a fully staffed operation known worldwide, with a single goal: cure blindness.
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