When Lali Rana entered SEVAâ€™s vision center in Nepal, she had little hope left. Only 42 years old, she was blind in both eyes. Her husband had passed away several years ago, and her two sons were working in India to support the family. Her remaining child, a 14 year old girl had been forced to give up school to take care of her mother.
Lali was initially reluctant to have eye surgery, fearing that her condition would deteriorate further. However, SEVA staff along with their private hospital partners convinced her to take a chance. She had muttered a prayer underneath her breath, hugged her daughter, and resolutely entered the operations room, hoping that she would be able to regain what she had lost.
Today, Lali is now happily making dinner in her home, her eyesight restored. She smiles and laughs, and her daughter is back in school. Her story is like thousands of women that SEVA is reaching out to in South Asia.
The SEVA Foundation was established in 1978 with a mission to alleviate suffering and poverty. The word seva comes from the language Sanskrit meaning â€œservice.â€ While SEVA provides a range of services, it focuses on providing affordable eye care services in the region of South Asia. SEVA supports local hospitals in the region, providing eye care, surgeries, eye exams and glasses at little or no cost, while also training hospital workers in eye care. Eye care services are often underutilized in South Asia, but the organization has made tremendous strides with its outreach programs. SEVAâ€™s programs have served over 500,000 individuals worldwide.
The concept of eye care services and cataract surgeries for developing South Asian nations was introduced by Dr. G. Venkataswami, a retired eye surgeon based in India and later the founder of Aravind Hospital, a hospital dedicated to the elimination of blindness, and with whom SEVA has partnered with several times in India. â€œDr. V (as he was known) wanted to make cataract surgery as â€˜ubiquitous as McDonalds,â€™â€ according to SEVA. The overwhelming source of blindness in South Asia is due to cataracts. Cataracts cause a cloudy lens within the eye, which is normally clear. A clear lens will enable light to pass through to the back of an eye, and the person can see clearly. However, with a cataract, the personâ€™s vision will deteriorate until the individual becomes blind.
A simple surgery for only $50 can remove these cataracts and restore sight to the eyes. However, the statistics for female blindness are troubling. SEVA research states that two-thirds of the 45 million blind people in the world are female, yet women receive less than half of eye care services. Even more astonishing, 80% of these cases are preventable or treatable forms of blindness. However, $50 is often expensive for many of the poor, so SEVA has attempted to provide lower costs per unit of care.
SEVA has attempted to bring its services to rural regions and reach the most disenfranchised populations. According to Suzanne Gilbert, the director of South Asia services, â€œWe put time upfront to get to know the region. We will often partner with an organization within the area that is familiar with the culture of the region. Often times, our largest difficulties stem from overcoming the deep cultural barriers.â€
One of the most common causes for cataracts is age. Unfortunately, according to Miss Gilbert, the cultural norm in South Asia for rural villagers is to accept that someone who is older will most likely go blind. â€œThey think that blindness is a natural after effect from old age. Many, as a result, seek no cure, and will not often visit eye hospitals with these older individuals.â€ Miss Gilbert comments.
SEVAâ€™s activities center around three major program activities: Eye Hospital Clinical Services, Community-Based Services, and Mobile Eye Camps. In Bangladesh, SEVA actively supports eye hospitals there helping these hospitals develop provide basic eye care and eye care surgeries. SEVA has partnered with the renowned Grameen Foundation, who has recognized SEVAâ€™s often critical work towards working toward development goals. SEVA also trains health workers in regional areas of India, enabling them to educate rural villagers on basic hygiene principles such as eye care or basic medical treatment. SEVA has even attempted to go to rural areas of Tibet and Nepal via mobile eye camps, to provide diagnostic screenings and surgeries.
SEVA still has several challenges it faces every day. First, since it is a non-profit organization, it needs funding to continue its work. Second, it needs to overcome cultural barriers that make many in the South Asia region and elsewhere deeply suspicious of SEVAâ€™s motives. However, according to Miss Gilbert, â€œWe are making so much progress and [I am] confident that one day, we will be able to help everyone with treatable forms of blindness.â€
To donate and volunteer with SEVA, please visit its website at www.seva.org
– Sharmeen Noor