Fadumo Adan lay still on the bed inside the dark holding area, her eyes closed, as she waited her turn to go inside the operating room. Her daughter, Amina Naleye, sat silently on a chair beside the bed.
It’s been four years since Adan began to develop cataracts in her right eye, Naleye said. She was unable to read or count fingers; the only thing she could notice, a surgeon said, were lights when they flickered on or off.
At 87 years old, she was unable to pay for the surgery that would remove the cloudy lens in her eye.
The chance to finally have her operation that Saturday morning in March, at no cost, was a blessing.
“She is elated,” Naleye said through a Somali interpreter. “Hopefully, she regains her sight and enjoys her life better.”
Adan was one of a handful of patients who would receive eye surgeries that day in the Bloomington offices of Minnesota Eye Consultants, a local ophthalmology group. Doctors and nurses volunteer twice a year for its Vision Project, performing free surgeries on patients who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford them.
Dr. Elizabeth Davis, who founded the Vision Project in 2001, said everyone involved looks forward to these days.
“The staff is so generous,” she said. “It’s so much fun and people so appreciate it.”
The surgeries and the next six months’ worth of medical care are paid for by the Minnesota Eye Foundation, the practice’s nonprofit arm. Surgical kits and other necessary supplies are donated.
Patients are referred by doctors from across the state. They are usually elderly, low-income and minority members. Their eye problems — cataracts, glaucoma, damaged corneas — are often severe, worsened over the years that they weren’t treated.
“Because they haven’t had any medical care, it’ll get pretty advanced, where they’re really not seeing much of anything out of the eye,” said Davis, who is president of the foundation.
These surgeries can be a crippling financial burden for those without insurance. Minnesota Eye Consultants estimates operations for cataracts can cost as much as $4,500, as much as $7,000 for glaucoma and $10,000 for corneal transplants.
The chance of developing cataracts greatly increases as one ages. A large majority of people develop them by age 65, and about 50 percent of people between 75 and 85 have lost vision because of them, according to the Kellogg Eye Center at the University of Michigan. They are one of the leading causes of blindness in the world.
Adan’s cataracts had worsened significantly in the four years since they were diagnosed. Before she was numbed and wheeled into the operating room, an anesthetist asked her if she had a fear of needles.
“I’m not afraid of the needle,” she said. “I’m ready for anything.”
An enduring impact
With delicacy and patience, two surgeons removed the lens in Adan’s right eye and replaced it with a new silicone lens.
Inside the operating room, the surgical team mused on the enduring impact that these relatively short surgeries have on patients.
“I’ve been here for a really long time,” said Shelly Moreno, a registered nurse. “It doesn’t get old.”
Julie Andersen, a certified surgical technician who has assisted in countless surgeries, agreed. “One of the coolest parts of our job, whether it’s volunteering today or what we do day-to-day, is the huge difference it makes in people’s lives,” she said.
Adan’s operation lasted about 30 minutes. One of the surgeons expected she would regain her full vision within one month.
Later, in the post-operating area, Naleye and a nurse spoke with Adan, her eye bandaged.
“She said, ‘Thank you for everything,’ ” Naleye told the nurse.
Eye diseases affect women at a greater rate than men, mostly because of their longer life expectancy. About 61 percent of both cataracts and glaucoma cases in the United States in 2010 were women, according to the National Eye Institute.
The surgeons conducted three more operations after Adan. This included 80-year-old Florence Odujole, who splits time between Cottage Grove, where her son lives, and her home of Ibadan, Nigeria.
Cataracts on both eyes had kept Odujole from reading the Bible, a text that she has taught for more than 40 years. She wore her glasses until they no longer worked, she said.
Her family, which does not have medical insurance for her, was unable to pay for the surgery. An optometrist then referred her to the Vision Project.
The opportunity to read again, Odujole said, is wonderful.
“It’s a vision for people,” she said from the holding area. “I will be so excited to go back to the Bible again.”
She thanked the surgical team for their work, and said she’d like to volunteer for a similar cause in Nigeria.
“The life you live for others is more meaningful than the life you live for yourself,” she said before going into the operating room.
Odujole’s surgery on her right eye was much quicker than the procedure on Adan. In the post-operating room, she held surgeon Dr. Walter Parker’s hand and prayed for him.
Minnesota Eye Consultants had more free surgeries scheduled for later in March. The group also fits them in throughout the year, Davis said.
More than a week after Adan’s surgery, Naleye said she was able to see much better from her right eye. She was expected to return for a checkup later in March.
Odujole was set to come back March 17 for surgery on her left eye. Her daughter-in-law said she is already back reading the Bible.