It was a moment I’ll never forget. Standing in a small operating room in an eye health clinic in a remote part of the Philippines. The words of a well-loved Christian song, “Holy, Holy, Holy” filled the room as I watched the two men before me – and marvelled at how God had brought them together in this place. Dr Reden, an Ophthalmologist volunteering his time, was preparing to remove the cataracts blinding a young father, Arnido. It was stuffy and humid, but it was as close to being in heaven as I’ve ever felt.
Lying on the operating table was a father of two, Arnido. Earlier, in the waiting room, Arnido had shared his story with me. He used to be a businessman working for Nestle, and provided for not only his wife and children, but also paid for his brothers to go to school. In his early thirties, undiagnosed diabetes caused him to go blind from cataracts.
Like the woman with unstoppable bleeding in the Bible, who reaches out in desperation to Jesus, Arnido felt the shame of being a burden to his family. A proud man, Arnido wiped away tears as he told me about the moment he had to explain to his sons that he could no longer work.
“I don’t want them…to be disappointed in me. It’s so hard. All I do was crying,” Arnido said.
During the next two years, Arnido’s muscles slowly wasted as became completely reliant on his family due to his vision loss.
“I can’t manage myself even walking, even standing. I was strong, and today I am weak.”
Being out of work for so long meant Arnido now struggled to feed his family, and could not afford cataract surgery, which cost the equivalent of 100 sacks of rice. Arnido told me that he prayed that God would give him another chance to see. When his family heard about a CBM supported eye screening camp in a local village, they brought him along. To his surprise, Arnido was told he could have free cataract surgery to restore his sight.
Dr Reden said that despite cataract surgery being a relatively quick procedure, taking around 12-minutes, people like Arnido who cannot afford the surgery live needlessly blind. If they are the provider for their family, this often means the family falls even deeper into poverty.
Although he’s at retirement age, Dr Reden’s faith compels him to volunteer his time and talent to serve the poor. “Cataract surgery in the Philippines is very expensive… and if you are poor you cannot afford it,” Dr Reden explained.
“I thank God because He has given me good health, good eyesight, and that I’m still strong enough to travel. This is what God has given me….so that I can be of service to Him, I can help people who cannot afford cataract surgeries.
“For me, it’s an opportunity to be of service to the people. God has given me this talent, and I need to give it back to him, and to give Him all the glory and the honour.”
In a country like the Philippines, many people blind from cataracts live in regional or remote areas. For those already living in extreme poverty, even the cost of travelling to a city for surgery is out of their means. CBM’s partner and Dr Reden undertake outreach missions – setting up screening camps and mobile operating rooms in remote areas.
“One of the problems faced by patients in regional areas is the financial aspect. They can only go to you once, not twice, because transportation costs are a problem. And so if we are in the area, we screen and then operate right away.”
With the support of the local government, CBM’s partner turn town halls, schools, or other buildings into makeshift operating theatres. With lines of people waiting for eye screening and surgery, it’s not unusual for Dr Reden to operate more than 50 patients in a day.
Asked to reflect on what keeps him from retiring, Dr Reden stopped a moment to reflect. “For me, it’s most encouraging to see those patients who are really poor and have been blind for four or five years. They’re so happy, they cry out. This gives me the encouragement I need to go on, even though it’s really hard for me,” he explained.
Dr Reden has faced various challenges operating in dangerous locations. Recently, he was operating in a remote hospital when the COVID-19 lockdown was announced. He was confined to the hospital grounds for the next six months.
“During the time of Covid, [living at the hospital] we could still do operations… 100-150 surgeries in a month… and there were only a few Ophthalmologists able to operate. So, I think it was a blessing in disguise that I was locked down and could do the operations.”
With Arnido’s operation complete, I watched as the next morning his eye patches were removed and he was declared to have almost 20-20 vision. A huge smile spread across his face as he realised he could see again.
“I am so happy. I’ll be back strong again and work for my family. Thank you God, you’ve given me another chance to see,” Arnido says, his face beaming with joy. Moments later when he saw his son, Arnido became emotional. He then explained, “I did not recognise my son was big and I cried. I’d lost two years on their growing up.” He then said, “Thank you God, you give me another chance to see, to witness the development of my child.”
Finished for the day, after operating on more than 30 patients, Dr Reden had a final message. “I would like to encourage all the donors in Australia to please help CBM, because CBM is one of our great supporters here in the Philippines. I’m encouraging all the donors in Australia to be generous; your money goes a long, long way to helping people in the Philippines. There’s only a few of us doing free surgeries and I’m thankful for CBM. They’re very supportive of all the missions we do here in the Philippines.”