GOOD NEWS | International Braille Day Reminds Us of the Miracle of Cataract Surgery

publication date: Jan 23, 2024
author/source: Chris Snyder

Last week, I spotted an item in my online news feed. January 4 was International Braille Day. Celebrated since 2019, Braille Day is observed to raise awareness of the importance of Braille as a means of communication in the full realization of the human rights for blind and partially sighted people.

In a moment, I was a child of seven with my mother outside the Eaton’s store in downtown Toronto. World War II had ended only a couple of years earlier. There was a man in a tattered serviceman’s greatcoat holding a big cup in one hand and a fist-full of pencils in the other. The top half of his face was covered with bandages. He was obviously blind and begging to survive. My mother put some change in his cup, took a pencil, and gave it to me. “Poor man! He was injured during the War,” she said as she hustled me away.

Decades later it was my turn, and I was upset. My ophthalmologist advised me that my blurred vision was because of cataracts, and I should have them removed. Even though my doctor indicated that cataract surgery was routine and covered by my provincial medical plan, I had flashbacks to when Adele (a good friend of my mother) had hers removed. It was long after the war, but still several decades back.

Adele was hospitalized for a week in considerable pain, and it took several months for her eyes to heal. In fact, one didn’t heal properly, and she was never again comfortable driving a car. Despite colours being more vivid, she lost her interest in painting. Although I knew it was unlikely, I had visions of the operation being painful, not working, not being able to drive or read, and even getting around with a white cane.

I took some time to learn about the advances made in cataract treatment Adele’s operation. Cataract surgery had become the most common surgery performed around the world, with an estimated 28 million procedures done every year—350,000 of them in Canada.

I knew too, that I was far from alone in my previous ignorance. According to Alcon Canada, almost 66% of people over 65 know almost nothing about cataracts.

A clouding over of the lens in the eye, cataracts are generally unpreventable, age-related, and very common. By 65, about 25% of us have cataracts. By the age of 80, it rises to 92%. The current treatment, (to remove the clouded lens and replace it with a new artificial one) takes about 20 minutes and is painless and very safe. The procedure has more than a 95% success rate, and 93% of those who’ve had cataract surgery would recommend it to others.

Years ago, most people with cataracts received no treatment and went blind. However, as far back as 1200 B.C. in India, Mesopotamia, Greece and China, a procedure was developed called Couching. A needle was injected into the eye, dislodging the cataract and moving it out of the visual axis. The cataract stayed in the eye but was no longer blocking the light. With no antiseptic or antibiotics and unsanitary conditions, 70% of the courageous patients went blind.

This frightening treatment was all we had until 1747, when a French doctor, Jacques Daviel, successfully removed the lens. This became the standard treatment—an improvement, but still with many limitations, until two hundred years later in 1949. At that time, a British surgeon, Dr. Harold Ridley developed an artificial lens and revolutionized cataract treatment. Unfortunately, until about 1990, most cataract patients went through what Adele went through. The use of ultrasound and lasers further revolutionized treatment, bringing procedures to today’s fast and sophisticated level.

Now, cataract patients turn up for their appointment, answer a few questions, and an hour and a half later they are free to leave, having experienced no pain. There’ll be a temporary eye-patch, eye-drops for administering at home, and no driving or hard physical activity for a week or so. Then a return in a couple of months to have the other eye done.

After the procedure, everything becomes brighter. Many patients feel that the black and white movie they’ve been seeing suddenly turns technicolor. Many no longer need glasses to read. Technology has allowed ophthalmologists to develop many new techniques, not only for cataracts, but also for glaucoma and macular degeneration. It is indeed a miracle for those of us alive to reap the benefits. Most costs are covered by provincial medical insurance, making this type of surgery accessible to all.

Of course, cataracts are not the only cause of poor eyesight or blindness and the services provided by organizations such as the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) allow many with poor or no eyesight to live a normal life.

Chris Snyder is the author of several books and several hundred articles on personal finance, Chris’ most recent book "Creating Opportunities-A Volunteer's Memoir" describes a lifetime of volunteer experiences, much of it as an active member of the Rotary Club of Toronto and on many not-for-profit boards. Chris is past chair of the Canadian Landmine Foundation, founding chair/current chair of HIP (Honouring Indigenous Peoples), on the board of the Trudeau Centre of Peace, Conflict and Justice as well as a past board member of CUSO and the Nature Conservancy of Canada. He organizes and runs hands-on school building trips to the developing world and is the recipient of many volunteer and community service awards, among them the Paul Harris Fellowship Award, the Queen's Gold and Diamond Jubilee Awards, the Rotary Service-Above-Self Award and the Governor General's Sovereign Award for Volunteering. His latest book, Good News in A Crazy World, will be published by Civil Sector Press in 2024.

Photo by Marina Vitale on Unsplash.

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