The Gift of Sight

Text by Serene Ashley Chen
Photo by The Vision Mission

Sapura Bhoi, an elderly lady, lives alone in the village of Salesing. Her husband passed away years ago and her only daughter got married and is now living far away from her. More than five years ago, she also lost her vision to cataract. This has made the simplest of everyday tasks like drawing water, leaving the house and recognising others impossible. The sad part about Sapura’s story is that her blindness could have been prevented.

Based on the latest assessment by the World Health Organisation, cataract is responsible for 51 per cent of world blindness, which represents about 20 million people (accurate as of 2010). Although cataracts can be surgically removed, the lack of access and financial resources to surgery in developing countries mean that many face the same fate as Supura.

According to Avinash Jayaraman, one of three founders of The Vision Mission, a Singapore-based social impact organisation by a team of doctors and professionals, the organisation was set up precisely for the purpose of providing free eye care to people like Sapura. According to the organisation, 285 million people are visually impaired worldwide and 80 per cent of all visual impairment can be avoided or cured. Cataracts remain the leading cause of blindness in middle and low-income countries.

In 2014 alone, TVM funded and conducted 1,000 free cataract surgeries in Odisha, India. In addition, TVM is also serving as a conduit to enable transnational collaboration of dedicated ophthalmic experts in providing free high quality eye care and surgery to patients in areas of need, with a view to eradicate treatable vision impairment and allow eye care access to all in Asia. Catalyst Asia caught up with the team to understand more about how cataract surgery missions are conducted.

Which geographical areas are you focused on?

Our primary focus area is South Asia and South East Asia. We started in the eastern and northern parts of India such as Odisha and Bihar because these are known to be the poorest states with a large rural and tribal population and very little help in primary healthcare. We are expanding our efforts to Northern Sri Lanka (a former war-zone), Cambodia, Myanmar and rural parts of China. In short, we look for a locality with a high proportion of population living under poor socio-economic circumstances.

We look for regions where there are already some healthcare operations and ophthalmologists. The most economical way of providing services is to tie up with existing organisations that have a basic setup, so that we do not have to move equipment to those regions. We also keep an eye out for a passionate local team of eye care experts that is willing to work with international teams and keen on augmenting their local setup to extend the reach of high quality general and subspecialist ophthalmic care to the needy.

How many volunteers do you have?

We have about 15 volunteers right now. They are a mix of Ophthalmologists, Sub-Speciality Experts, Optometrists, people who can help with fundraising, publicity, logisitics and planning. We have had volunteers who have wanted to come in and just help in general ways like help with patients, help out in various ways at the camp and so on.

What are the main challenges in running The Vision Mission?

Getting clearances in various countries to support camps is the biggest challenge. Over the last year, we have been able to find willing donors, volunteers and partners. However, in many cases, we will need government clearances, medical licences in the country we wish to work in and so on. Those tend to be hard to come by, take a lot of time and are mired in red-tape.

What are your development goals moving forward?

Geographically, we would like to expand our coverage to include more countries in South and South-East Asia. We see ourselves working with multiple partners in multiple countries, while also harnessing the talent pool from various countries as well. For our next camp, we are getting volunteer doctors not only from Singapore, but also from India.

We would also want to move towards a more scalable setup, where within our organisation, there could be dedicated teams of experts handling very specific areas. Right now, as a nascent organisation, there is quite a bit of overlap in the work that each of us handles. This is obviously not scalable. We would also want to ensure standardisation of procedures within the organisation, and produce detailed process documents so that we can easily replicate operations in various countries.

We would also like to move the organisation towards a sustainable model – one that is not based on repeated donations. We are talking to other non-profit organisations to this end.

About the Founders of The Vision Mission

Mr Avinash Jayaraman is an entrepreneur and social entrepreneur with over 12 years experience in building companies. He is a founder and director of Innove Technologies – a company that works in the area of Education Technology. He has been involved with other charitable causes and work over the years. He has worked with several social initiatives and non-profit organizations over the years and brings in a background in fund-raising and organization management. Avinash has more than 12 years of experience in setting up and managing teams, building sales channels, coordinating implementations of projects across various domains in various countries. Avinash was a recipient of the prestigious Singapore Airlines Scholarship, and the Singapore Airlines – Neptune Orient Lines Scholarship under which he completed his Bachelors in Computer Engineering (Hons) in NUS. He completed his Masters in Computing from NUS.

Dr Jayant V Iyer is an Associate Consultant eye surgeon with the Singapore National Eye Center (SNEC). He has presented clinical and scientific ophthalmic research work in numerous conferences in addition to authoring papers in international peer-reviewed journals. In 2012, he authored Essential Ophthalmology – an ophthalmology guide for general practitioners – that was distributed by SingHealth to polyclinics and GP clinics across the country. He is actively involved in international ophthalmic mission work in countries like Myanmar, Sri Lanka, India and the Philippines, while also serving as a regular volunteer in running free clinics for the needy within Singapore with organizations such as Tzu Chi.

Dr Jason Lee is a Registrar at the Department of Ophthalmology, Tan Tock Seng Hospital and has presented research work in numerous international ophthalmology conferences. He has a keen interest in providing eye care for the needy and has been actively involved in free eye care screenings across Singapore. He is also a regular volunteer at the Tzu Chi Free Health Screening and Medical clinic for which he forms part of the team which runs the eye clinics. Dr Lee has also participated in multiple international ophthalmic humanitarian trips to various countries including Myanmar and India.

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Note: Catalyst Asia is a content platform that is produced and owned by the Institute for Societal Leadership (ISL). At Catalyst Asia, we believe that real life can only be captured at a particular moment in time. Everything you read here is accurate at the point in which it was recorded. We do not expect details to stay the same and we hope that they don’t. No part of this publication may be reproduced without written permission from the Institute for Societal Leadership at the Singapore Management University Administration Building located at 81 Victoria Street Singapore 188065. To get in touch, please drop us a line at serenechen@smu.edu.sg.

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