University of Utah Health: Operation sight helps Utahns in need keep jobs, care for families

November 16, 2020

Nov 04, 2020 8:00 AM

At Left: Operation Sight Day patient Manuela Lechuga, 55, after receiving free eye surgery to restore her eyesight. At Right: Lechuga is pictured with her daughter.

When Manuela Lechuga explains the reason she needs to see well, it’s not about her own desire to remove the cloudy haze that has been stealing her vision, preventing her from driving or cooking safely.

While those difficulties are formidable barriers to the 55-year-old fully participating in her family and community, Lechuga is thinking of someone else entirely when she laments her failing eyesight. She is thinking about her daughter.

Lechuga serves as the primary caregiver for the 32-year-old woman, who has cerebral palsy and requires a very physically intense care level.

“I need to help her move and to change her diapers,” said the mother with a tear in her eyes.

But Lechuga couldn’t afford the out-of-pocket costs associated with a surgery needed to correct her vision. Without insurance, money was simply too tight.

That changed on a recent Saturday in October when more than 40 doctors and medical personnel at the John A. Moran Eye Center volunteered their time to help Lechuga and 11 others. Performing cataract surgery, surgeons replaced the clouded lens of Lechuga’s eye with a clear synthetic one to restore her sight.

It all happened during Moran’s Operation Sight Day, an annual event to assist uninsured, low-income Utahns. Surgeries are funded solely by generous local donors and doctors identify patients at free clinics held throughout the year. Those clinics are held with partnering community organizations including the Fourth Street Clinic, Maliheh Free Clinic, People’s Clinic, Salt Lake City’s Project Homeless Connect, the Refugee and Immigrant Center – Asian Association of Utah, the International Rescue Committee, and the Utah Navajo Health System.

“We are continuing to assist members of our local community during the pandemic safely,” said Jeff Pettey, MD, MBA, outreach division co-medical director. “We have precautions, protocols, and testing in place for this day and ongoing outreach work. The need for eyesight that allows people to keep their jobs, care for family members, and participate in the community is still there. We will be, too.”

When Lechuga emerged following surgery, she marveled at how fast everything in her life had changed and how good she felt.

“I am relieved,” she said. "This is wonderful."

Among the other participants at Operation Sight Day was German Menendez, a 56-year-old electrician whose failing eyesight threatened his employment and safety. He and his wife, native Hondurans, said they are seeking political asylum following the murder of a family member.

Emma Andrade, 60, was also worried about keeping her job on the cleaning staff at a casino in Wendover, Utah. Her failing vision made her fearful she might fall or get hurt on the job. Andrade was already calling upon friends to get her teenage daughter around since she was too scared to drive anymore.

Consuelo Mejia's granddaughter escorted her to Operation Sight Day. The 87-year-old mother of nine and beloved grandmother was anxious to get back to her role in the family, knitting and cooking. After her sight was restored, she said she felt she “had her power” once again.

All three had their vision fully restored at the 2020 event, dedicated to Alan S. Crandall, MD, founder and senior medical director of Moran’s Global Outreach Division and a driving force behind local outreach across the state. Crandall passed away on Oct. 2 after dedicating himself to restoring vision for people in need in Utah and worldwide. Under his direction, the Operation Sight Day event has restored sight for more than 200 Utahns since it began in 2012.

Moran surgeons donating their skills at the event were Amy Lin, MD; Brian Stagg, MD; Rachel Patel, MD; Theresa Long, MD; and Ashlie Bernhisel, MD. Stagg, Pettey, and University of Utah medical students first created a charity surgery day with volunteer physicians, staff, nurses, and technicians in 2012. The event was later adopted as a national model by the American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery Foundation’s Operation Sight network.

The Global Outreach Division is planning to restore sight to at least 25 Utahns in 2020 through the Operation Sight program. It continues to assist additional patients outside of Operation Sight Day by working them into Moran’s regular weekday surgery schedule.

View a photo album from Moran's Operation Sight Day 

Story courtesy of University of Utah Health