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Eye doctors volunteer to bring light and sight to the blind of Guyana


In one week, a four-man surgical team, including a father and son from Baltimore, restored the sight of more than 100 men, women and children in Guyana who had been blinded by cataracts.

The mission involved poignant, 13-hour work days in a poverty-stricken country in South America that won't soon be forgotten, say Dr. Leeds E. Katzen, Mercy Medical Center's chief of ophthalmology.

His son, Dr. Brett Katzen, in his final year of ophthalmology residency at the University of Maryland Medical Center, was also part of the team of volunteers.

In one case, an 8-year-old boy named Gregory -- born with cataracts on both eyes -- was able to see for the first time in his life.

In another case, even the most sophisticated therapies could not help a blind man who spends his days begging. His glaucoma had been neglected so long that his optic nerve was irreversibly damaged.

"The saddest part of this experience was that we could not take care of all the patients, and that the need for cataract surgery was so widespread that we had to limit vision restoration to one eye per patient," said Leeds Katzen this week on his return to Baltimore.

In between cataract operations, which remove the opaque film that clouds the natural lens of the eye, the doctors' hours were crammed with more than 800 eye examinations to check on the && country's high incidence of glaucoma and other, more routine problems.

Cataracts and glaucoma -- a buildup of fluid that elevates pressure within the eye and can lead to blindness -- affect more than 80 percent of the Guyanese population over the age of 60, the doctors said.

The U.S. team, which included two Louisville, Ky., eye surgeons, traveled to Georgetown, Guyana, on the north coast of South America.

They were on a sight-saving mission led by Dr. Carmen Gannon, a nun and former Mercy Medical Center nurse who became a physician. The internal medicine specialist now heads Project DAWN -- Donors and Workers Now -- based in Savannah, Ga.

Gannon, a native Baltimorean and a member of the Sisters of Mercy Order, sends teams of specialists, including heart and orthopedic surgeons, to Guyana four times a year. She joins them to supervise personally the delivery of desperately needed medical care.

Doctors who volunteer finance their trip and do all their surgery free of charge at St. Joseph's Mercy Hospital and the Public Hospital in Georgetown. In those hospitals, two operations are performed at the same time in one operating room, which is unheard of in the United States.

And, if the doctors are anything like Leeds Katzen, they arrive there somewhat like Santa Claus -- with bags full of toys and trinkets for the pediatric patients and an array of scientific equipment and drugs they have persuaded big medical manufacturing firms, such as Alcon Surgical in California, to donate.

For example, the Mercy ophthalmologist took a $45,000 phacoemulsification machine and a $40,000 operating room microscope with him. They are valuable tools in cataract removals that are followed by a plastic lens implant inside the eye.

And, for children such as Gregory, who now can see for the first time, there were kaleidoscopes to create wondrous combinations of colors and beauty for eyes fresh out of darkness.

"The trip was very moving," said Dr. Stuart Haman, a surgical assistant who earlier this month accompanied the Mercy eye surgeon to Guyana for the second time since 1989. "There were more people with more of a need this time. The people would arrive hours ahead of the 7 a.m. opening of the clinic and the waiting line stretched out as far as the eye could see."

The people of Guyana are extremely poor but very literate and very appreciative of American medicine, said Leeds Katzen.

"They teach their kids to read. I talked with one little 11-year old -- she had malaria -- who read beautifully from 'Alice in Wonderland.' I asked her to show me her other books and her reply was: 'This is the only one I have. But I've read it 20 times.' "

Ninety-one percent of the country's 750,000 people are reported to be literate, which "is amazing in a country that is less than 1 percent cultivated -- the rest is jungle," said Haman.

When adult patients had been given their sight once again, they always showed their gratitude by bringing small gifts -- such as little piece of wood they had carved, the surgeons said.

The Baltimore doctors were also impressed by the dedication of the Guyanese nurses. "The nurses are on call two weeks a month, and for those two weeks they must stay in their house every night of the week because they do not have phones or beepers," Haman explained.

"When there are emergencies, they are picked up and transported to the hospitals. Actually, they only make $40 a month in American money. Isn't that unbelievable? This is dedication."

And, as Leeds Katzen said, "That's what this country is about -- its people. They're wonderful, and the Guyanese fear losing their people. But they have no money and really no place to go."

The population of Guyana is 51 percent East Indian and 45 percent African, with the rest a mixture of Asians, Portuguese and South American Indians.

Once he arrived in Guyana, the Mercy ophthalmologist felt safe and secure. But, the 5 1/2-hour trip put him in a panic. "We travel in these 30-year-old planes that rattle and shake, and I sit there fearing we will go down before it's time," he said.

This year, as he was considering making the trip again, the eye surgeon mentioned to a patient that he was helping in the surgical training of his son at the University of Maryland.

"That's a mitzvah -- a blessing. It's a blessing that you are alive and have been able to do this," said the Jewish patient to the Jewish doctor. "And when you have a blessing, you are supposed to do something for charity."

It was that conversation that motivated Leeds Katzen to return to Guyana. "Who knows, perhaps in the Book of Life that has just been written for the Jewish new year, I'll be lucky and my name will be there," the doctor said.

Leeds Katzen would very much like that because that is when he expects his son, Brett, to join him in the Katzen Eye Group

practice at Mercy Hospital and in Lutherville.

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