Programs offer free eye surgery for needy

Across the country, outpatient surgery programs are volunteering their surgeon’s time and ORs to provide eye surgery for patients who otherwise could not afford it. "There are a lot of medically negligent people in the United States who don’t have resources to have eye surgery here," says Thomas Kidwell, MD, medical director of Eye Surgery Center in Rancho Cordova, CA.

Since 1996, the center has been participating in a national program put on by Mission Cataract USA, a nonprofit foundation offering free cataract surgery one day a year to people of all ages who have no means to pay. This year’s effort will be held May 3-4 (free eye screenings) and May 10-11 (free eye surgery). While those dates are the official ones, many programs choose to schedule their free surgery at other times of the year. (For more information on Mission Cataract USA, see "Sources and resource" at the end of this article.)

Some centers, such as McGowan Eye Care Center in Framingham, MA, have developed their own free eye-surgery program modeled after Mission Cataract USA. Because the New England center has a low patient census around the December holidays, the McGowan center selected the last Tuesday before Christmas to offer the free surgery all day, explains Bernard L. McGowan, MD, director of the center. The procedures, which average about 15, include cataract and glaucoma laser procedures. McGowan’s program, which targets people who cannot afford medical insurance, has included patients brought in from other countries by their relatives.

Both centers screen patients.

"We do a screening ahead of time to make sure patients have cataracts and they qualify," Kidwell says. Many patients may not qualify because of other health care problems, such as diabetes, he says. It’s important to know what resources are available for patients who don’t have medical insurance but don’t qualify for the free surgery, Kidwell says. "Explore the resources available in your own community so you have options to give people," he advises. (See editor’s note at the end of the story.)

Volunteers are at the heart of both programs. With Mission Cataract USA, staff and surgeons are asked to volunteer their time. Vendors donate intraocular lenses (IOLs), and the Eye Surgery Center’s optical shop donates glasses. In McGowan’s program, the surgeons volunteer and staff are paid. Vendors donate all of the supplies and medications.

The centers have reaped positive publicity from their efforts. Boston television stations have featured the program several times, McGowan says. "Last year, they put our name on the blank screen with our telephone number, which they left up for 10 seconds," he says. "You can’t pay for that kind of advertising."

However, the greatest advantage comes from the feeling of giving something back to the community, McGowan and Kidwell agree. "There’s an incredible number of people working who can’t afford health insurance," Kidwell says. Their cataracts may prevent them from working, he says. "By correcting their vision, they may be able to go back to work or better meet requirements of their work," Kidwell says.

The effort is a morale-booster for surgeons and staff, and the December holidays are the perfect time, McGowan says. "We have such a high percentage of patients who are snowbirds, and there is a lull that occurs," he says. "Most people don’t want to be operated [on] around Christmastime. This gives us chance to keep our staff employed, use our facility, do something for the community, and give this treasure — sight."

[Editor’s note: Members of the International Associations of Lions Clubs in the United States and Canada work with LensCrafters stores to collect unwanted eyeglasses for recycling. In the United States, the glasses are sent to one of six regional recycling centers where Lions and other groups prepare them for distribution. The first Wednesday in December, LensCrafter stores set aside a morning to provide free eye exams and eyeglasses to needy residents. Also, some Lions Clubs purchase eyeglasses for the needy. For more information, call (630) 571-5466 Ext. 363 or go to]

Sources and Resource

For more information on offering free eye surgery, contact:

Thomas Kidwell, MD, Medical Director, Eye Surgery Center, 10725 International Drive, Rancho Cordova, CA 95670. Telephone: (916) 631-2000. Fax: (916) 631-2041. E-mail:

Bernard L. McGowan, MD, Director, McGowan Eye Care Center, 297 Union Ave., Framingham, MA 01702. Telephone: (508) 872-4590. Fax: (508) 872-0038. E-mail: Web:

There’s a $250 registration fee to participate in Mission Cataract USA, which is tax-deductible. The fee covers the instruction packet and media kit, posters, fliers, and camera-ready advertisements. Each registered participant receives week-by-week, step-by-step instructions, including how to get started, how to recruit staff and community volunteers, and how to inform community leaders about the project. The packet also provides financial guidelines and necessary forms in English and Spanish. The media kit provides press releases, public service announcements, and demonstrations of how to get local media to visit your facility. It also contains posters, fliers, and camera-ready ad slicks in English and Spanish. For more information or to register, contact:

Mission Cataract USA, 1233 E. Brandywine Lane, Fresno, CA 93720. Telephone: (800) 343-7265 or (559) 433-1116.