For this story, we spoke with two alumni with a passion for service — one who finished training approximately 10 years ago, and one who is currently in residency.
In Nepal, the term for blind person translates to “mouth with no hands.”
“In the world’s poorest countries, blindness often leads to early death due to inability to work, poor nutrition and neglect,” says Matt Oliva, M.D. ’99, Res. ’03, an ophthalmologist in Medford, Ore.
As a medical student, Oliva did a rotation in Nepal, and he saw an international team perform 300 cataract surgeries in four days. “It was the genesis moment for me — I saw the model and the vision,” he says.
After settling into private practice, Oliva began volunteering with the Himalayan Cataract Project (HCP), which collaborates with clinicians from the developing world to improve eye care and enhance local capacity through training. Often working in temporary clinics set up in schools in remote areas, highly efficient physician-nurse teams provide cataract surgery, restoring sight in about seven focused minutes.
Oliva serves on the HCP’s board, oversees the organization’s work in Ethiopia, trains ophthalmologists overseas and has performed more than 10,000 cataract surgeries in five countries. “Treating blindness is probably the most cost-effective health intervention with the biggest impact,” he says.
He enjoys sharing the moment when the bandages come off and a patient sees a family member’s face. “Many people look old and frail on the surgical table, but the next day they are walking confidently or dancing with joy, and looking 10 years younger,” says Oliva. “I love the transformation.”
Alumna Estell Williams, M.D. ’13, remembers her own transformative moment: a glimpse of open-heart surgery during a medicalscience summer program for disadvantaged youth. The surgery crystallized 14-year-old Estell Williams’ goals. “When the doctors showed me what was happening,” says Williams, “I said, ‘I want to do that.’”
One of the first things Williams wanted to do upon entering the UW School of Medicine was to strengthen ties to the local African American community. She and other first-year students held focus groups with community leaders to discuss health needs and ways to address them, as well as to train future physicians to work with culturally diverse groups.
“We wanted to start in our own backyard to help the university fulfill its mission,” Williams says. One outcome: the creation of an elective course on African American health and health disparities. She also served in other ways. Throughout medical school, Williams was a leader in the Alliance for Equal Representation in Medicine, a mentoring program focused on local high-school and college students, and in the Student National Medical Association, which has similar goals.
Now Williams is a first-year UW surgery resident. When she completes her training, she plans to work in trauma and critical care in East Oakland — and to continue serving as a mentor. “What fuels me and keeps me happy is to provide the same empowerment to disadvantaged students that I was afforded,” Williams says.
Want to learn more about the hope provided by cataract surgery? Watch a video at vimeo.com/m/81749477, which shows Ethiopian patients whose sight was restored by Oliva and his colleagues in the Himalayan Cataract Project. Or visit the HCP at cureblindness.org.