October 10, 2018
3 min read

Elimination of corneal blindness poses large-scale challenge

Claire Bonilla, the CEO of SightLife, describes moving from Microsoft to lead the nonprofit organization.

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April Steinert

I have had the privilege of being a member of the board of directors of SightLife for just more than a year now, and during that time, I have been a witness to SightLife’s tenacious commitment to eradicating corneal blindness across the globe. When I entered its offices in Seattle for the first time a year ago and had my first tour, everyone I met along the corridors exuded positivity when asked about their job and their mission. It was evident they were happy to be working together toward this common goal, and they were delighted to share it with me. The excitement in the air was palpable.

Claire Bonilla is the CEO of SightLife. I spoke with her recently and inquired after her biggest challenge, and without hesitation, Claire said, “Tackling the mission of eliminating a global health condition has easily been my biggest challenge.” In Claire’s former career at Microsoft, there were more than 100,000 employees, $64 billion in the bank, and her objectives centered around market share and profit margins. Now, Claire has accepted the reins of a nonprofit with just more than 150 employees, many undeveloped markets and with the loftiest of goals minus the $64 billion in the bank. For most, these hurdles might sound too daunting to undertake, but these are precisely the reasons Claire signed up for the job. I vividly recall Claire telling me, during one of our first conversations, how thrilled and grateful she was to have the opportunity to face the many challenges inherent in leading a nonprofit. She told me that it had always been a dream of hers to work for a nonprofit health care organization, so she left the corporate world to pursue an ambition she found to be more fulfilling and soul-satisfying.

Claire also gave me some staggering numbers. There are 12.7 million people suffering from corneal blindness, and 98% of those are in developing countries. SightLife currently works in India, China, Greater Asia, Africa, Latin America and the United States. It is focusing on education, affecting government policies, and increasing access to tissue, quality care, prevention, eye bank building, surgeon training and follow-up care.

Last year, in India alone, around 23,000 corneal transplants were performed, but there were an estimated 5 million people suffering from corneal blindness in that country, so there is still a lot of work to be done. A lack of tissue is also a considerable problem, and policies such as mandatory notification of death would go a long way in opening up access to tissue. The average patient travels 150 km to receive a corneal transplant, and 50% of those patients disappear after 1 year and do not pursue follow-up care. Preop education and access to eye care in remote regions are critical in capturing those patients before they fall between the cracks.


Claire said, “Personally, I’ve learned after more than a few decades on this planet, with a mix of success and failures, that if you aren’t challenging yourself you become stagnant, and there is too much need in the world today in health care, the environment, diversity and other major global issues for us to rest on our laurels. The big challenges can’t be solved effectively alone. Partnering and leaning on others, whether personal or professional, always results in a better outcome.”

If you are interested in helping Claire and the organization tackle the enormous task of eliminating corneal blindness, there is room at the table and a myriad of opportunities, from signing up as faculty to help train corneal surgeons in developing countries to sponsoring a surgeon for training, collaborating on eye bank skills training in developing countries, and giving monetary donations to help advance policy and health care in remote regions. Please email the organization at info@sightlife.org.

For this piece, I also spoke with Audrey Talley Rostov, MD, regarding her great work with SightLife, and Audrey shared this story with me:

“I have worked with the SightLife global program for 9 years. On my first trip to India training surgeons in cornea transplant techniques, I operated on an older man with bilateral corneal blindness, being led in by his grandson. The man’s daughter had to cook and care for him full time, and his grandson was in charge of guiding him. In developing countries, even going to the loo is a challenge, especially if you are blind. The day following a corneal transplant combined with cataract surgery, the man had enough vision to navigate on his own. It was then that I understood that treating corneal blindness changes lives and communities, not just for the patient, but for their family as well.

“When I go on a SightLife mission to help eliminate corneal blindness, I am reminded of why I chose a surgical career, of the joy of practicing medicine and a shared quest by fellow surgeons in the developing world for knowledge and excellence. As part of an international group of surgeons, I have profound gratitude for the opportunity to work together with other surgeons to serve those whose lives and communities can be transformed by restored vision.”

“No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.” – Charles Dickens

Disclosure: Steinert reports no relevant financial disclosures.