Eye doctors operate on patients inside a clinic in Lagos, Nigeria. A small contingency of local doctors made the trip to relieve children and adults of advanced cataracts, which are stealing their vision.
SOUTHFIELD — Eye doctor Walter Cukrowski has traveled the world to help children and adults plagued by disease, malnutrition and cataracts that threaten their vision.
While he returns the gift of sight to his young patients, like many volunteers, the eye surgeon says they have given him even more in return.
Cukrowski and a small group of doctors performed 63 cataract surgeries during a trip to Nigeria early this summer. The trip was Cukrowski’s fifth medical mission abroad.
Children normally don’t get cataracts, a clouding of the eye’s natural lens. Cataracts are more common in people older than 60 and those with diabetes. But, in impoverished areas where nutrition is scarce, UV rays are high, and food and water are often unsanitary, Cukrowski said cataracts are common in younger adults, and children are often born with cataracts if their mothers don’t receive proper prenatal care.
It is important to remove the cataracts to restore eye health and sight, he said. If the cataracts are not removed by the time a child is about 8 years old, the brain won’t develop sight properly, he explained.
“The next day, the kids could see,” the 37-year-old Cukrowski said.
Cukrowski, a Birmingham resident, is a partner at Michigan Eyecare Institute in Southfield. He specializes in the treatment of cataracts, glaucoma and retinal problems.
He asks suppliers to donate equipment and medicine. “They’ve been unbelievably generous.”
In the United States, technology has turned cataract removal into outpatient surgery with less risk. The trip to Nigeria involved difficult surgeries on cataracts that had developed to levels unheard of in the United States.
Fellow medical missionary Dr. Jamie Aragones, who has completed 27 such trips since 1977, said he remembers treating an 8-month-old girl who was completely blind in both eyes, and a 90-year-old woman with the same condition.
“The unfortunate thing is that we can’t do more,” Aragones said.
The corridors were lined with more than 200 patients with traumatic cataracts, dislocated lenses, cases of previously unsuccessful surgeries, glaucoma and corneal scars.
The doctors were helped in their mission by a state-of-the-art phacoemulsification machine, used to extract cataracts.
Bill Anders, a representative from Advanced Medical Optics in the Detroit area, brought along the company’s AMO Sovereign with Whitestar Phaco System, and the company donated implant lenses.
Cukrowski and Aragones said the only way to make any real advances is to set up a training ground in the new techniques in the Third World countries because the need is great.
Cukrowski’s first mission abroad landed him and a friend at a medical clinic in the jungles of Guatemala in 1994. In 1998 and 1999, he traveled to Calcutta, India, where he not only performed primary eye care, he provided medical treatment to many children who were homeless and living on the streets.
He remembers treating one boy who was suffering from serious Vitamin A deficiency, also unheard of in the United States. Others needed medicine for malaria and other infections.
On a 2002 visit to Peru, Cukrowski provided medical attention to people in villages along the Amazon River.
Although he spends his time away from the office living in bug-infested, disease-ridden areas where robbers can stop the car at night and threaten violence, Cukrowski’s only lament is that he can’t help more people.
Each time, something happens at the end of the trip that reinforces its purpose, he said. A child will look at him and ask when he’ll return.
“That puts the seed in your soul that makes you say, ‘I don’t think this is my last trip.’”
Cukrowski said he’d like to return to each of the places he’s been, and is also interested in taking mission trips to China and parts of Asia. Already, there’s talk of a trip to the Philippines in 2006.
By Rebecca Jones
C&G Staff Writer
You can reach Rebecca Jones at email@example.com