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Inaugural Cataract-A-Thon at UTHSC’s Hamilton Eye Institute Gives Gift of Sight to Those in Need

Surgeons donated their skills to restore the sight of 30 Mid-Southerners during the recent Ivan Marais Cataract-A-Thon at Hamilton Eye Institute. (Photos by Dr. Jason Jenson/Hamilton Eye Institute)

Thirty people saw the world differently when they walked out of the Hamilton Eye Institute Surgery Center at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center on Friday, June 2.

They were patients in the inaugural Ivan Marais Cataract-A-Thon, a daylong outreach effort by multiple organizations, corporate sponsors, and volunteers to provide free cataract surgeries to individuals, who otherwise would have no means of obtaining the sight-saving procedure.

The Hamilton Eye Institute Surgery Center provided the surgical facilities with support from Baptist Memorial and Methodist Hospital nurses and anesthesiology staff. The Hamilton Eye Institute Lions Club and the Mid-South Lions identified the patients and organized their travel to the Hamilton Eye Institute Surgery Center, where surgeons and residents did screenings, comprehensive eye exams, surgery, and follow-up care. Also contributing to the event were volunteers from the Southern College of Optometry. Alcon, Novartis, Cardinal Health, and ImprimisRx donated surgical supplies and medications, while the American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery (ASCRS) Operation Sight Program offered considerable financial support. The total value of donated services amounts to more than $100,000.

Brian Fowler, MD, assistant professor of ophthalmic plastic and reconstructive surgery, vice chair of clinical operations, and associate program director at the Hamilton Eye Institute, developed the idea for the event, which helped patients from Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri, and Tennessee. Emily Taylor Graves, MD, an ophthalmologist and cataract surgeon from Duncan Eye, PLLC, served as the co-director.

Cataracts are the leading cause of blindness, said Dr. Brian Fowler of the Hamilton Eye Institute, who developed the idea for the outreach event.

“Cataracts are the leading cause of blindness in the world and are entirely curable,” Dr. Fowler said. “Cataract surgery is the Number 1 surgery performed in the United States, yet there are still many uninsured patients in the United States without access to medical care, who are blind from cataracts. This should never happen when the capability for surgical cure is prevalent and nearby.”

Dr. Fowler said he has done mission work overseas in Panama, Guatemala, Ghana, and other places, but felt a calling to provide sight-saving procedures in his own community. While not a cataract surgeon, he chose to center the outreach on cataract surgery, because it had the potential to make the greatest impact for the most people in curing their blindness.

“The goal of the Ivan Marais Cataract-A-Thon was to bring that mission experience to our own community, to our neighbors right here in Memphis, Tennessee,” he said.

In addition to Dr. Graves, cataract surgeons, Elliott Kanner, MD, and Aaron Waite, MD, both assistant professors of ophthalmology at Hamilton Eye Institute, and Kristen Duncan, MD, of Duncan Eye, PLLC, contributed their services.

“The event honored Dr. Ivan Marais, who trained each of us at Hamilton Eye Institute, and was one of the leading ophthalmologists in developing modern-day safe and effective cataract surgery,” Dr. Fowler said. “He was like a father figure to all of us at Hamilton Eye Institute. Since Dr. Marais’ passing two months ago, his impact was felt in so many ways during the Cataract-A-Thon.”

Next year, organizers hope to double the number of patients treated during the one-day event.

“The clearest benefit of this year’s event was hearing multiple patients with tears in their eyes tell volunteers they were seeing their families’ faces for the first time in years,” Dr. Fowler said.