Five years ago I was barely able to see and today I am learning about public health efforts to prevent blindness and improve eye-health worldwide. To celebrate the fifth anniversary of my sight-restoring cataract surgery, I thought to share a bit about my journey here.
I was born in a small village in Pakistan. At the age of two, I was diagnosed with retinoblastoma, a rare cancer of the eye. There was no adequate treatment in the country, which is still the case in many developing countries. Fortunately, my mother and I were able to immigrate to the United States, where my father worked, to get treatment. I survived the cancer after several months of cancer treatment and enucleation of one eye. It was a tremendously difficult time, and I wish no one would have to go through such hardship.
After overcoming the cancer, I had to confront my vision loss. As a consequence of the radiation therapy, I developed a cataract in my remaining eye. The cataract would not be treated until my eye matured for another 15 years. I don’t remember my vision being so poor as a child (probably because of my subjective perception) but as I became older I realized how poor my vision was. I could never read regular print and relied on magnifiers and screen readers. I began to have difficulty crossing streets and recognizing faces. In spite of the limited vision I had, I was able to manage to do well in school with the immense support of my family, friends, doctors and teachers.
My vision loss developed my perseverance and I waited until I would have my sight-restoring surgery. By January 2009, I was not able to able to see the largest letter on the eye chart even after being only two meters away from it. My vision was recorded as “count fingers at two feet.” I was on the far lower-end of the visual acuity spectrum. It was time for my operation.
I had my cataract surgery on 13th February 2009. I was extremely afraid, for if anything went wrong I would lose my vision completely.
After the eye-patch was removed I couldn’t believe what I could see-everything seemed unrealistically vivid, like from a video game or a virtual simulation. Everything had a vibrant new colour to it. The details everywhere I looked were dazzlingly overwhelming. The faces of my parents looked completely different. I could even see the specks of uneven paint on the wall, something I still do to test my vision. I can never fully describe the magnificence of that day but I cherish and celebrate it with every blink.
My affinity with vision led me to study psychology and neuroscience as an undergraduate. But I became appalled to learn that millions of people were needlessly deprived of vision, especially in developing countries. The WHO estimates that 285 million people in the world have vision impairment, 80% of which can be avoided with adequate services in places. Millions of these people could have the life-changing experience I had with my cataract surgery.
Much of the work to address this global health problem has been done at the School’s International Centre for Eye Health (ICEH). I was thrilled to learn that there was a MSc Public Health for Eye Care course offered specifically to prepare students to correct this public health problem. I submitted my LSHTM application last year around the 13th of February, hoping that it would bring me luck; and it did.
I feel honoured to be a student at LSHTM because of its valuable contributions to improving health worldwide. I am taught and surrounded by extraordinary individuals who have pioneered and are taking forward the elimination of avoidable blindness and other health problems. Many of my peers are ophthalmologists and have operated on many patients, giving them the precious gift of sight just as I was given by my ophthalmologist. It is a privilege to be among such remarkable people and I hope that I will be able to contribute to further our joint mission of preventing blindness and improving eye-health worldwide.
It has been an amazing journey thus far, and I look forward to what comes ahead.