Halloween & Childhood Blindness
Halloween is upon us. Tonight, our homes will be visited by hordes of costumed children, demanding their share of candy and treats. At SEE, we always love this time of year. It’s fun to see the kids dressed up as monsters, superheroes, and fairytale characters. But as we watch them wander about in the darkness, guided by a flashlight and their parents, it also makes us think of how important eye care is for their well-being and future.
Children all around the world face a host of eye conditions that may leave them blind or with limited vision. According to the World Health Organization, every sixty seconds, a child goes blind somewhere in the world. They may have been born with cataracts, or develop strabismus, pediatric glaucoma, or other impairments. Not every eye surgeon can operate on a child, though. They need a very specific set of skills, expertise, and even instruments, to restore sight to young patients. In the developing world, doctors with these skills can be difficult to find. Moreover, many low-income countries do not have public awareness about blindness-causing conditions. Parents often do not know when their child’s vision is at risk. Tragically, if a young one is not treated at an early enough age, they can sometimes lose their eyesight permanently.
Pediatric ophthalmology is a time-intensive job, and operating on a child can be complicated. Undergoing eye surgery is enough of a frightening experience for an adult; for a child, it can be terrifying. Because of this, pediatric ophthalmologists have to develop a relationship of trust and cooperation with their young patients. When it is time to operate, they usually need general anesthesia.
All this extra time and effort means that, even in U.S. clinics, pediatric ophthalmologists might end up seeing 30-35 patients a day. Compare that with the 60 or more that other ophthalmologists see. Moreover, because of their lighter patient load, they tend to get paid significantly less than doctors with other subspecialties, such as cornea. For these reasons, eye surgeons rarely take on pediatrics as a subspecialty. Of course, this problem is only worse in the developing world, where trained ophthalmologists are already in short supply.
At SEE, we don’t claim to have a solution to this problem. What we do know, however, is that the doctors who decide to become pediatric ophthalmologists are heroes – particularly those who volunteer to treat children in the developing world. SEE is lucky to have a number of them among our ranks. We recently recognized one of them, Dr. Judith Newman, with our annual Humanitarian of the Year Award. Dr. Newman, who hails from Helotes, Texas, has volunteered with SEE since 2000, performing free sight-restoring surgeries on individuals in developing countries worldwide. She has participated in a mind-boggling total of 128 volunteer sight-restoring programs around the world, 67 of which have been with SEE. Because of her generosity and effort, hundreds of children around the world can see.
Even fewer vision care professionals in the developing world have the necessary skills to treat children suffering from blindness, than in high-income countries. Dr. Newman has therefore made it her mission to teach doctors in low-income countries how to treat children suffering from blindness and low vision. “Even if I treat 30 or 40 kids,” she explains, “It is a drop in the bucket unless I am also training a local ophthalmologist, who has a heart for the poor and is keen on learning the necessary skills to treat kids.”
Thanks to pediatric SEE Docs like Dr. Newman, not only can hundreds of children see, but doctors in the developing world now know how to treat even more young patients for blindness. Dr. Newman puts it best in explaining why she loves pediatrics: “These kids are the future; they belong to all of us. Their joy is our joy; their pain and misery is all of our pain and misery.”
And because of her hard work, and the hard work of our other SEE Docs, tens of thousands of children around the world will no longer have to live their lives in darkness. That is what we will be thinking about as we pass out candy to trick-or-treaters this evening. We hope this puts a smile on your face as you do the same.