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Towsontowne Rotary fights corneal blindness in Bangladesh

Corneal blindness affects 12 million people worldwide, 500,000 of them in Bangladesh alone.

Chris Coleman and Mahmood Farazdaghi have more in common than their membership in the Rotary Club of Towsontowne.

Farazdaghi, a microbiologist and former science teacher in his native Iran, is co-founder and president of the International Federation of Eye & Tissue Banks and senior vice president of Tissue Banks International. He is also a leader of the Towsontowne club's ambitious effort to raise $100,000 on its own — and another $200,000 from a worldwide network of Rotary clubs — to reduce corneal blindness in Bangladesh, a poor country where the problem is most pronounced.

Coleman is a fifth-generation member of the family that owns Nelson Coleman Jewelers in Towson, and was formerly afflicted with a medical condition that required corneal transplants in both eyes.

Farazdaghi and Coleman knew each other from the club, but didn't know about their corneal blindness connection until fate broached the subject last year.

When Coleman joined the Rotary club last November, he had already been diagnosed with congenital Fuchs Corneal Dystrophy, and had received new corneas in each eye between 2008-10. He had no idea there would be a link between his former condition and his Rotary service until he attended a meeting in which members were introducing themselves and talking about their careers and lives.

Coleman was surprised when Farazdaghi spoke about his involvement in eye and tissue banks and his work on behalf of the people of Bangladesh.

"At the end of his talk, I raised my hand and said, 'By the way, I have corneal transplants,'" Coleman recalled.

Now, Coleman and Farazdaghi are at the forefront of what the 55-member club is calling a "global vision initiative" to help 500,000 children and adults in Bangladesh who suffer from corneal blindness, compared to 12 million worldwide.

The cornea is the outer structure protecting the rest of the eye from germs, dust, injury and disease and focusing the light coming in, according to a slide presentation that the club has put together as a fundraising presentation. Corneal blindness is caused by factors including Vitamin A deficiency; measles, trachoma, herpes and other bacterial and fungal infections; eye trauma; congenital disease; living in slums; and working on farms, and disproportionately impacts children, according to the slide presentation.

A group of club members, most from Baltimore County, including Nancy Scheinman, Season Shrestha, Jo Martin, the Rev. Lee Mebust, former pastor of Ascension Lutheran Church, and Farazdaghi met last month at Mebust's house to discuss the project, which is called "The Project to Reduce Corneal Blindness in Bangladesh."

Martin said the club would like to see corneal blindness eradicated worldwide, "like polio," she said.

Coleman could not come to the meeting because he was attending his grandson's birthday party, and was interviewed later.

Scheinman and Shrestha are veterans of such fundraising projects, including one that the Towson Times reported on earlier this year, leading efforts to raise money to help victims of earthquake-ravaged Nepal, which is Shrestha's homeland.

"I'm spreading the word," said Coleman, 72, who is serving as a spokesman for the project and describes the importance of the cornea as protecting the eye like a car windshield.. "I feel like I stumbled into an opportunity to really be part of something big and do a lot of good."

Farazdaghi, 75, a microbiologist who trained at Johns Hopkins University's renowned Wilmer Eye Institute, co-founded the federation with Alfred Sommer, former dean of Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health, and Frederick Griffith, a former hospital manager who is credited with revolutionizing the disorganized system of making corneas available for transplant.

Farazdaghi, of Cockeysville, is taking the lead in the Rotary club's project to upgrade the infrastructure of eye banks in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, and to train 4,000 medical students in the country to ask families to donate healthy corneas of loved ones who have died. Medical students then would prepare the corneas for transport to eye banks, which in turn would rush them to participating hospitals for transplantation by ophthalmologists within 72 hours.

"It all depends on the availability of corneas," he said.

The problem of corneal blindness is acute in Bangladesh because of poor hygiene and a climate that makes the country a breeding ground for diseases. Also acute is the problem of getting cornea donations. Last year 127,000 corneas were donated in the U.S.; in Bangladesh, only 54 were donated, Farazdaghi said.

While corneal transplantation is a routine, 30-minute outpatient procedure in the U.S., "The need in Bangladesh is so great that it would take 10,000 years to treat all of the people on the current waiting list," Farazdaghi said.

In a press release, Towsontowne Rotary club president George Brown calls it "an outstanding business model that leverages the efforts of relatively small clubs, like Towsontowne, that are willing to step forward to fill a need that otherwise would be out of reach."

But the project and the training of the medical students can only begin in earnest "when we get the money," said club member Nancy Scheinman. The local club donated the first $10,000 of the $100,000 that it is raising through the Rotary Club of Towsontowne Foundation, Inc., a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit. Matching grants are also being sough from other Rotary clubs and Rotary International, as well as from corporations and private donors.

Meeting Farazdaghi was "my second serendipity," said Coleman. The first was when he got chatting with a couple at Nelson Coleman Jewelers, and the man turned out to be Dr. Albert Jun, an ophthalmologist at the Wilmer Eye Institute and an expert on Fuchs corneal dystrophy. Jun ended up doing Coleman's corneal transplants, using healthy corneas from Tissue Banks International, "Mahmood's tissue bank," Coleman said.

Coleman treated his progressive condition with special eye drops for many years until Jun told him, "It's time."

By then," I had progressed to the point where I was wearing my jeweler's optivisor," a magnification tool, he said.

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