Northampton eye surgeon Lauren Shatz is among those crisscrossing the globe to prevent blindness

  • While in Cambodia in March, Shatz also worked with doctors there. He says he enjoys sharing his knowledge with other professionals and learning about their methods as well. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Dr. Lauren Shatz of Eye Physicians of Northampton in Florence traveled to Cambodia in March to do cataract surgery at a charity hospital there. He was part of a team recruited by SEE International of California.

  • Dr. Lauren Shatz of Eye Physicians of Northampton in Florence traveled to Cambodia in March to do cataract surgery at a charity hospital. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • “There is a mountain of curable blindness, you just have to keep chipping away at it,” says Shatz, now back home in his Florence office. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Dr. Lauren Shatz talks about his experience volunteering in Cambodia in his Florence office. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Dr. Lauren Shatz talks about his experience volunteering in Cambodia in his Florence office. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  •  During a past trip, Shatz treated patients in Siliguri, India. Over the last five years, he has performed about 200 eye operations in developing countries. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Gazette Staff
Published: 5/1/2017 3:12:33 PM

Almost half of the world’s blindness is preventable — caused by cataracts —  when the lenses of the eyes become clouded and block out light. It’s a problem that a 15-minute surgery can correct, but poverty and a shortage of doctors puts the operation beyond the reach of many people in the developing world.

 But Northampton eye surgeon Lauren Shatz, 44, is among the U.S. doctors trying to change that by learning an economical form of cataract surgery to bring to countries like Cambodian, Vietnam and India. They volunteer their services through a group called SEE International of California, which recruits doctors and matches them with hospitals in need around the world. The doctors pay their own way, but SEE International provides medical supplies.

“When you see the amount of need there is in countries that have a lot of poverty, it really makes you grateful for what you do have and it makes you want to help in whatever way you can,” Shatz said in a recent interview in his office in Florence. He just returned from two weeks in Cambodia  where his team performed about 50 surgeries over the course of one week and gave lectures to other doctors during the rest of the time. 

 The surgery typically costs just $50 to perform and doesn’t require bulky or expensive equipment. It’s a method that uses only a few tools and isn’t commonly taught in medical schools, so doctors must seek out specialized courses on their own, said Stephen Bunnell, head of communications at SEE, which is dedicated to restoring vision to people around the world..

Shatz took a course with the American Academy of Ophthalmology, headquartered in California, to learn the technique five years ago and since then has crisscrossed the globe, performing up to 200 operations.

A simpler process

The manual surgery is a more refined version of the cataract surgery that Shatz has been performing in his practice, Eye Physicians of Northampton, for the last 14 years. 

The process is simple. First, a small incision is cut, then the lens of the eye is removed and replaced with a synthetic lens, perfectly fitted to the shape and size of each individual’s eye. 

Cataract surgery most commonly performed in the United States costs over $1,200. In that operation a small ultrasound probe sends a pulse into the eye to break apart the lens before the microscopic particles are sucked out.  “The surgery calls for some heavy duty technology. These machines are hard to move around — hard to air drop into the jungle or the desert in the developing world," said Bunnell. The manual surgery is far more accessible and delivers the same results, he said.

The cut in the eye tissue is so small that it heals without a stitch and recovery time is just a few hours.

Life-changing results

The loss of vision due to cataracts has prevented many of the people Shatz has operated on from doing everyday tasks, like cooking or driving to work. The quick relief that the surgery delivers is dramatic, he says. According to the World Health Organization, cataracts are the cause of roughly half of the 37 million cases of blindness worldwide.

“The bandages come off and you see the smiles,” he said. “They are really happy to have their vision restored.” 

Though Shatz has mostly done cataract surgery during his travels, he also has treated severe cases of glaucoma, which causes increased pressure in the eye and damages the optic nerve. It, too, can result in the loss of sight.

“There is a mountain of curable blindness,” he said, “you just have to keep chipping away at it.”

Doctors in countries like Vietnam usually have fewer resources to work with than doctors in the United States, Shatz said, so they have developed innovative, more cost-effective ways to get the same results.

For example, instead of using three different blades during surgery, they can get away with using one, he said.

In another instance, when doctors needed to stop the bleeding during surgery, a metal tool was passed over an open flame to cauterize the blood vessels in the eye. In the United States the same effect is produced with a machine that sends electrical current to an instrument. 

“It’s really fun to hang out with doctors from other countries, hear their stories,” Shatz said. “It is a good way to share ideas, see what they do, and leave something with them.”

During his most recent trip to Phnom Penh, Cambodia in March, Shatz taught eye doctors at the charity hospital Children's Surgical Centre about using medicated eye drops to control infection after surgery.

Renewed enery 

Shatz, who lives in Northampton with his wife, Amy, and two teenage sons, says his wife’s encouragement has made it possible for him to volunteer.

“Having children, I really couldn’t do this type of work without Amy’s support. I am tremendously grateful to her for that,” he said. 

Now he is settling back into his practice in Florence, where he specializes in cataract surgery, LASIK corrective vision surgery, glaucoma treatment and general eye care. 

“It’s very energizing. You come back with renewed enthusiasm for the work here.”

But, he says, he is already looking forward to returning to the hospital in Cambodia next year to see the progress doctors have made and to reconnect with his colleagues there.

“Cambodia has a functioning medical system that continues to get better because of visiting doctors,” he said. 

Lisa Spear can be reached at lspear@gazettenet.com.


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