She was a young woman of 18 and had been blinded by cataracts for most of
her life when her parents brought her to a Myanmar eye care clinic in a
monastery. She underwent cataract surgery there. Afterward, her bandages were
removed, and she could see.
Her reaction to her restored vision was not what one might have expected,
her surgeon, Geoff Cohn, MB, BCH, FRANZCO, FRACS, founder and consultant
ophthalmologist of the See Again Myanmar project, said.
“She was profoundly depressed because she had no idea. She had never
seen the world, and I suppose was thinking, ‘Where’s that 18 years of
my life gone?’” Dr. Cohn said. “But on the third day, when I was
racing through the ward, doing quick postops, she was looking at a silver thing
that is sort of a mirror. She said … she’d like the second eye done.
I knew then that we’d done something worthwhile.”
Dr. Cohn began the eye care project in Myanmar, formally known as Burma,
more than 6 years ago. Since its inception, the program has helped set up
several clinics in the country that treat and medically train the Myanmar
“The country is beautiful and the people even more so. They’re
extraordinarily wonderful people,” he said. “It’s inspiring to
work with people who really commit themselves with such love.”
examines a student with congenital glaucoma. |
|Two hours after
cataract operation in Myanmar.
Images: Cohn G
In addition to volunteering in Myanmar, Dr. Cohn is also involved in
ophthalmic outreach projects in Cambodia and Indonesia. Outreach is imperative
in many countries in Southeast Asia because there are often not enough trained
medical personnel to treat people who have cataracts and ocular diseases. In
fact, there is a backlog of visually impaired individuals waiting for help, he
In Myanmar, there are about 200 surgeons serving 55 million people with
limited resources, Dr. Cohn said. An extraordinary number of young people in
the country are blind from treatable causes, including cataracts and
There are many in Myanmar whose vision could be restored easily and
inexpensively, he said.
He knows of many lives changed and reshaped by restored vision throughout
the world. Once, he operated on a young Myanmar mother who had never seen her
child because of cataracts. After surgery, Dr. Cohn removed the young
mother’s bandages. Her first reaction was to look at her child, and then
she wept, he said.
“Fortunately, tears are good for the eye after the operation,” Dr.
Role of op techs
To help meet the need for more medical personnel, Dr. Cohn and fellow
Australian colleagues use ophthalmic technicians, or op techs, who combine the
skills of a refractionist, clinical assessor, scrub nurse and postoperative
monitor. Op techs can take a visual history, assess vision and IOP, examine the
front and back of the eye, and prepare patients for surgery.
“Surgeons should be operating; they shouldn’t be wasting their
time looking at itchy, burning eyes,” Dr. Cohn said. “They
shouldn’t be doing glasses — our op techs prescribe the
The See Again Myanmar program and outreach projects in Cambodia train op
techs to assist with eye care, making ocular services available in a more
sustainable way. He said the goal of the programs’ training is to render
volunteer Australian physicians obsolete.
“We must support and edify our beleaguered local colleagues,” Dr.
Cohn said, adding that the work is far from done, and many more volunteer hours
“We desperately need more ophthalmologists to come operate and
teach,” he said. “Of course, they have to be able to do extracapsular
surgery because phacoemulsification would bump the cost of an operation from
$15 to $400, which wouldn’t be a constructive exercise. We would welcome
all comers, and we’d welcome any equipment that anyone could donate.”
– by Erin L. Boyle
- Geoff Cohn, MB, BCH, FRANZCO, FRACS, is senior lecturer, University of New
South Wales, and founder and consultant ophthalmologist of the See Again
Myanmar project. He can be reached at 94-98 Chalmers St., Surry Hills, NSW
2010, Australia; 61-41-437-1423; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.