There is no argument that eyesight is one of our most precious senses. Imagine life being blind… unable to work or care for yourself. You’d be totally dependent on your family and others for all simple tasks — everyday simple tasks such as feeding, cleansing and clothing yourself. Then you hear about a group of Christian foreigners who have come to town to help people see again. How happy would you be? It was my great privilege to be with Operation Eyesight, a new mission launched by the Medical Services International to Huili, Xichang, and HeQing Sichuan, China over the past several years. Our teams witnessed firsthand this joy and indescribable gratitude in the hearts and on the faces of those we served.
Having enjoyed a steady solo ophthalmic practice in Kitsap County for over 25 years, I often had wondered what direction to take near the waning days of my medical career. I had considered serving as a medical missionary back to China, but was too busy fulfilling the mundane responsibilities of running a private practice, and never took time to “think outside the box.” My friend, Dr. George Chin, the MSI eye project director, talked to me about going to China. George discovered, through the MSI’s site selection process, that the Chinese authorities frowned upon any “show-off” projects, where American or other international teams flew in, demonstrated what great ‘miracles’ they could do and then left. The people were exposed to the ‘moon’ but were not given any means to reach for it. The local doctors gained nothing useful to better themselves nor how to better serve their patients. Dr. Chin convinced the authorities that the MSI group had a different approach, and that our purpose was to teach the local personnel “to fish and eat for a lifetime.” The governor of Yunan remained skeptical, but the Sichuan authorities consented to authorize MSI a trial visit.
When he first approached me, Dr. Chin had no inkling that my very first spoken words were Sichuanese! I had lived in Sichuan province at ages 1-2, when just learning to speak. The idea of going to Huili piqued my interest more than he expected. I was anxious to spot if my Sichuanese still resembles their speech after almost 60 years.
Three teams were assembled for the launching of this maiden MSI Operation Eyesight Project. Each team consisted of 10 members – Christians, from various walks of life, most without any medical training. The foremost requirement was simply a sincere “desire to serve.” All team members performed necessary functions according to their talents. As physicians, we all realize the importance of the “supporting cast” of any surgical team. The team leaders were the ophthalmic surgeons. We were then responsible to assign duties to all of the rest of our team members.
The first site, Huili, is a poor farming community with a population of 450,000, located near the southern part of Sichuan province. The average worker’s monthly wage is about $30 (US) per month. Hospital doctors receive a salary of about $100 (US) per month. Our goals were to train local doctors to better perform cataract surgery and to better provide eye care to the region’s farmers. Prior to our visit, cataract surgery was essentially unavailable in the nearby area, hence many able bodied peasants were unnecessarily visually handicapped.
To get to Huili, we literally had taken Planes, Trains and Automobiles. The Seattle volunteers first flew the 17-hour leg to Hong Kong and spent the night there. We then entered Mainland China by flying to Chengdu; where via the Red Cross MSI was allowed to import ‘duty free’ the needed supplies. We stayed another day there, took the opportunity to visit the China National Panda Preserve, and boarded a night train to PanZehHwua. The train journey was 14 hours long, but the time was well spent getting acquainted. My team, Team 2, consisted of members who came from other parts of US, Hong Kong and the UK. At PZH, we were met by an ambulance van sent by the Huili County People’s Hospital and taken on a 3-hour ride along a bumpy mountain road through China’s scenic rural countryside. When we reached Huili, we were quite surprised to see that this rural community had internet cafes, cellular services and countless stores stocked with everything, including some of the latest electronic equipments. The air was clean and the scenery was magnificent. As we walked through the main market area, the Caucasian team members invariably attracted crowds of curious on-lookers.
The facilities at the hospital were very basic, lacking many essential supplies. It reminded me of the VA Hospitals in the 60’s. The local personnel re-cycled everything, including needles, rubber gloves, and scalpels. Sometimes they even used soup bowls to hold saline solutions for their surgical cases. The hospital is a six-story building but didn’t have an elevator to transport patients or supplies. Patients either walked or were carried by stretchers up and down the stairs. We witnessed a woman lifted off the operating table onto a stretcher and taken up the stairs immediately following a caesarian section.
Thanks to our meticulous preparation, we were able to ship everything that we possibly could have needed: (medications, lens implants, surgical instruments, operating microscopes, autoclaves, etc.) so that we could perform cataract surgeries without any dependence on the local goods. Needless to say, this was a huge logistical task; over 90 boxes of donated medical supplies were shipped in advance. Additionally, most of us carried an extra suitcase full of equipment and/or supplies as our personal luggage.
As stated, each team member had a different task, some more publicly visible than others, but all important. Dr. Chin’s team included a pharmacist who quickly organized and labeled the contents of 50+ suitcases and boxes of supplies. When my team arrived, my Bainbridge receptionist, Jan Hurley, entered the inventory into my lap-top computer so we were fully aware of what we had at all times. Someone else set up the electronics, such as the operating microscope with video and monitor connections, the cautery unit, and other essentials. We had an engineer on my team who ably ran the autoclave and steamer, and set up our own “internet café” in my hotel room. We also had a photographer who recorded and captured those special moments. The OR nurse organized everything in the surgical theater. Though I received the most exposure and appreciation, in all honesty, I felt that my job as team leader and as one of the teaching surgeons was the most effortless of all! At least I was in back in my own environment. The others, by necessity, all had to be more creative and flexible.
We worked effectively, efficiently and harmoniously during the entire mission. The comradery was absolutely great!!! We were reminded to work together through a Bible passage that we read together during one of our devotions:
I Corinthians 12:12
“The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body.”
Besides treating patients, team members also scheduled presentations for the hospital staff on subjects ranging from treating allergies to making scarves. Some members taught English, both at the hospital to the staff, and to children in the evening. Since all cataract patients, as well as other patients, stayed in the wards and didn’t have much to keep them occupied or amused, other team members visited with them, entertaining them with music. It wasn’t necessary for them to speak any Chinese, as their actions spoke volumes. The team showed the people of Huili that we cared, through smiles, by holding their hands, and by just listening (even though most members couldn’t understand the patients at all). Our team also held a “concert” for the patients, which attracted a large audience that included members of the hospital staff and patients from other wards. On our last day, the team distributed small gifts and postcards from the USA and played with the patients using hand puppets!
The Huili hospital staff were wonderful hosts. They took us on an outing to a lake retreat, entertained us with Karaoke and treated us to three marvelous meals each day. We enjoyed foods such as steamed pineapple rice, Peking duck, steamed dumplings, and spicy Sichuan dishes. Some of the local delicacies were quite difficult for our westernized palates to appreciate: dishes such as turtle soup, stir- fried snakes, fried sand worms, and cock testicles – food which would have been more enjoyable, not knowing what they were.
Although we were advised that preaching was forbidden, we did have the opportunity to worship on Easter at the local Christian church. It was a dreadfully small building considering the size of the congregation. We witnessed as many as 2000 people at worship, squeezed into a space which at best should seat 600! Most peasants in China are illiterate, so they chanted simple hymns repeatedly, led by a church elder. Team members who understood Chinese translated the sermon for the others in English. We were pleased to hear that the same message of Christ’s love and grace transcends all cultures and languages. Easter Service began at 8 AM and lasted until 4 PM. More than 300 people were baptized on that day.
After the church service, we held an eye clinic to provide reading glasses and eye drops to those in need. We served and dispensed over 300 pairs of readers within an hour.
We successfully met all our objectives and established good relationships with all the people we encountered. Without exception, everyone treated us magnificently. Mutually our eyes and hearts were opened. With the assistance of the local doctors and nurses, the three MSI teams performed over 100 cataract operations and treated others with eye-related problems. The local hospital staff is now fully trained in performing cataract extractions and lens implantations independently and with success and confidence. People in Huili now have local access to cataract surgery, without any need to travel at least three hours to PZH. We learned to use the various gifts and talents that GOD has granted and entrusted us, and we gained elevated awareness and in actual fact of how blessed we are. Truthfully, one doesn’t have to be a skilled doctor or nurse to serve on a medical mission trip: only a loving heart. The people of Huili greatly appreciated our presence. They are very humble in listening to our opinions. Our patients and the hospital staff were all sad to see each team leave. Our unselfish, good work ethics, love towards all patients, ‘preached’ the Gospel quietly and steadily. St. Assisi was spot on when he admonished us to ‘preach the Gospel always, and use words only when necessary.’ Moreover we in turn also will never ever forget this special positive experience.